Non-participant observation

Non-participant Observation involves observing participants without actively participating.

This method is used to understand a phenomenon by entering the community or social system involved, while staying separate from the activities being observed.

"The observation process is a three-stage funnel, according to James Spradley, beginning with descriptive observation, in which researchers carry out broad scope observation to get an overview of the setting, moving to focused observation, in which they start to pay attention to a narrower portion of the activities that most interest them, and then selected observation, in which they investigate relations among the elements they have selected as being of greatest interest. Observation should end when theoretical saturation is reached, which occurs when further observations begin to add little or nothing to researchers' understanding. This usually takes a period of days or months, but, depending on the phenomenon in question, sometimes several years." (Liu & Maitlis 2010)

Non-participant observation is often used in tangent with other data collection methods, and can offer a more "nuanced and dynamic" appreciation of situations that cannot be as easily captured through other methods.(Liu & Maitlis 2010)

Limitations to this option include:

  • The observer effect: the presence of the researcher may influence the participants' actions. This may reduce over a longer period of observation, but remains a potential issue.
  • The objectivity of the observer: The researcher can take steps to ensure systematic and rigorous approaches to sampling, field notes, and data collection to increase transparency.
  • Selectivity: The observation can never capture everything. This can be addressed by observing as many different circumstances as is possible, over as long a period of time as is possible.
  • Ethical concerns: Should the researcher's voice be viewed with greater authority than that of the participants? This can be addressed by drawing on participant accounts, as well as that of the researcher.

Advice for using this method

  • Researcher lives in or regularly visits the site/suburb/organisation
  • The researcher adopts a more separate and distant role than that of the Participant Observer
  • Non-participant observation can be overt or covert
  • It is important that the researcher build trust and develop empathy with participants, whilst simultaneously making sure to avoid over-empathising with participants
  • The collection of detailed field notes is key to successful non-participant observation
  • Audio and visual recorders or cameras can be used to aid with capturing raw data
  • If you intend to make individual and identified reference to a person’s behavior, you must inform the participant and that person must freely choose to participate. Public expressions of behavior and unidentified observations do not have the same requirements.

Liu, F., & Maitlis, S. (2010). Nonparticipant Observation. In Albert J. Mills, G. Durepos, & E. Wiebe (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Case Study Research. (pp. 610-612). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Expand to view all resources related to 'Non-participant observation'

This page is a Stub (a minimal version of a page). You can help expand it. Contact Us to recommend resources or volunteer to expand the description.

'Non-participant observation' is referenced in: