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How to... use ethnographic methods and participant observation

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Participant observation as an ethnographic data collection method

What is it?

Participant observation is one of the main ethnographic data collection methods.

The essence of participant observation is that the researcher observes the subject of research, either by participating directly in the action, as a member of the study population, or as a "pure" observer, in which case he does not participate in the action but is still present on the scene, for example observing workers in a manufacturing plant or discussants in the board room.

In either case, the researcher observes, notes, records, describes, analyses, and interprets people and their interactions, and related events, with the object of obtaining a systematic account of behaviour and idea systems of a given community, organization or institution.

In interviews, the research instrument is the interview schedule, in surveys it is the questionnnaire. In participant observation, it is the researcher and his or her eyes and ears, as well as sometimes voice as he or she engages with the subjects in conversation. The data are recorded in the form of field notes, tape recordings, photographs, video recordings.

Like other ethnographic methods, participant observation is very much based on the classic methods used in early anthropology, by Malinowski and others as they studied particular populations, often for years at a time taking detailed notes.

Again like other ethnographic methods, participant observation is usually inductive, and carried out as part of an exploratory research phase, with the view of forming hypotheses from the data. It is often connected with the grounded theory method, according to which researchers revisit the research territory with deeper and deeper knowledge.

The strength of participant observation is its ability to describe depth (thick description) and to help understand human behaviour.

Researcher roles

There is a continuum in observation techniques between the covert and the overt observer, and the observer who participates completely in the activity and the one who is purely a "fly on the wall". There are problems with all these approaches, but the ideal is to ensure that the maximum amount of information is gained whilst at the same time retaining the maximum distance in order to ensure researcher objectivity. It is possible to sum this up in the following matrix:

Image: researcher roles. 1. Complete participant = participates in action, hides role. 2. Complete observer = does not participate in action, hides role. 3. Observer as participant = does not participate in action, reveals role. 4. Participant as observer = reveals role.

Which role is adopted would depend on the subject being researched, for example:


In "The (unlikely) trajectory of learning in a salmon hatchery" (Journal of Workplace Learning, Vol. 17 No. 4), Yew-Jin Lee and Wolff-Michael Roth describe their 'participant as observer' research which involves understanding how people learn in a particular setting. In order to do so, researchers undertook various roles: "Collectively, the researchers participated with hatchery staff in numerous activities such as the taking of eggs, seining in rivers, tagging, feeding fish, fertilizing lakes with chemicals, taking measurements on fish and in the environment, sampling returning salmon, and releasing smolts". It was only in undertaking these apparently routine tasks that researchers could fully appreciate the expertise involved.

In "Ethnography of an American main street" (Susie Pryor and Sanford Grossbart, International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management, Vol. 33 No. 11), the researchers carried out 240 hours of participant observation which involved working as a retailer, shopping, and attending local activities and events.

In "Participant observation: a model for organizational involvement" (Journal of Managerial Psychology, Vol. 9 No. 2), Gerald Vinten cites several examples of how going "under cover" was the only way to uncover certain behaviours: fiddling in the workplace, cases of unconventional practice in the workplace, posing as a watchqueen in public toilets in order to research homosexual behaviour, and posing as a pseudo-patient in a US psychiatric hospital in order to observe treatment of schizophrenics.

In "'Saying is one thing; doing is another': the role of observation in marketing research" (Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal, Vol. 2 No. 1), Jonathan Boote and Ann Mathews conducted research into the siting of middle market restaurants in South London, looking at consumer movements both around the citings and also in lunch outlets. In both cases, they used observation techniques, in the one, time sampled consumer traffic counts, and in the other, taking on roles of consumers and noting the types of other consumer. In neither case was their role disclosed.

There are other possible roles for the observer:

Other factors which might determine the type of role the researcher would choose are the amount of time available, whether or not it was possible to get a position with the organization.

Location is also a consideration: the ideal is that this should be as natural as possible, but there are times when an environment may be simulated (a supermarket for example) in order to set up precise conditions, or as an experiment.

Structured observation

Structured observation differs from participant observation in that it is more detached, more systematic, and what is observed often has a more mechanical quality. It is also a quantitative as opposed to a qualitative technique, concerned with quantifying behaviour as opposed to obtaining a rich description. It may use self completion diaries (as for example in an attempt to find out how managers spend their time). The "observer" may also be mechanical – for example, the use of EPoS to track sales, or a video camera may be used.


Mintzberg's (1973) work on how senior managers spend their time is a classic example of the use of structured and unstructured observation. Mintzberg first spent time in participant observation during which he came up with categories which formed the basis for the activities in the coding schedules which were given to the managers for them to record their activities.

Adavantages and disadvantages

Participant observation is not without its detractors, and is seen to have a number of disadvantages, notably:

On the other hand, participant observation has some solid advantages some of which counter the disadvantages.

However, the best way of using participant observation in a useful and responsible way is to triangulate it with other approaches (see Data collection methods and triangulation).

Applications to management research

Participant observation is based on the social sciences, particularly social anthropology, and in particular on the premise that you go and study a different, and often remote culture. The appeal to management research is that it can study the culture of a particular organization in depth. However, in many cases it is simply not practical to immerse oneself for months at a time: the cost would be too great, the organization may not be willing, and one cannot actually live with the workers. For this reason, time sampling is often adopted. Here, the times at which observation takes place are carefully selected.


In "The human resource management practice of retail branding: an ethnography within Oxfam Trading Division" (Stéphane J.G. Girod, International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management, Vol. 33 No. 7), the observations were made at carefully chosen time periods, described as follows:

  • Extensive field note-taking on the spot and analytical reviews immediately after the working days spent at Oxfam headquarters. In total, the author spent one full day a week from October to December 2002. This participation gave him access to all internal induction and operational meetings organized in the trading team with paid staff and volunteers.
  • Extensive field note-taking and comments after each of five participant-observation days at the Broad Street Shop, Oxford (right before Christmas 2002).

(The above was triangulated with interviews and a study of the intranet.)

Participant observation has found a particular use in market research, for which it is a natural technique as both are concerned with human behaviour. According to Mathews and Boote (1999), participant observation is a good method under the following circumstances:

Goulding (2005) also provides a description of ethnographic methods in the context of market research.

The ability to study behaviour makes participant observation a useful technique in other areas of management research where behaviour is an important factor. For example, where it is important to understand behaviour as part of the job role, as in the case of the fish farm described above, and where questioning people may not be sufficient, as their testimonies cannot for whatever reason be relied on (lack of verbalization skills, embarrassment etc.), or in cases of consumer or lifestyle choice, or in employees' reactions to change. It can also be of value in understanding symbolic aspects of organizational culture, for example branding.

Data collection

  1. Observations should be recorded as far as is possible on the day of the fieldwork, in diary form, and should comprise the following:
  2. Primary observations including:
    • Date
    • Time of day
    • Location
    • Actors present
    • Sequence of events, and any interruptions.
  3. Secondary observations in the form of any statements by others about what you observed.
  4. Experiential data as relating to your own state of mind, emotions and any reflections.
  5. Circumstantial and background data about the organization, key roles etc.


Boote, J. and Mathews, A. (1999), "'Saying is one thing; doing is another': the role of observation in marketing research", Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal, Vol. 2 No. 1, pp. 15-21.

Goulding, C. (2005), "Grounded theory, ethnography and phenomenology: a comparative analysis of three qualitative strategies for marketing research", European Journal of Marketing, Vol. 39 No. 3/4, pp. 294-308.

Mintzberg, H. (1973), The Nature of Managerial Work, Harper & Row, New York, NY.

Printed from: on Sunday May 19th, 2019
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