Participant observation

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Participant observation is a set of research strategies which aim to gain a close and intimate familiarity with a given group of individuals (such as a religious, occupational, or subcultural group, or a particular community) and their practices through an intensive involvement with people in their natural environment, often though not always over an extended period of time. The method originated in field work of social anthropologists, especially Bronisław Malinowski and his students in Britain, the students of Franz Boas in the US, and in the urban research of the Chicago School.

Such research usually involves a range of methods: informal interviews, direct observation, participation in the life of the group, collective discussions, analyses of personal documents produced within the group, self-analysis, and life-histories. Thus, although the method is generally characterized as qualitative research, it can (and often does) include quantitative dimensions. Participant observation is usually undertaken over an extended period of time, ranging from several months to many years. An extended research time period means that the researcher will be able to obtain more detailed and accurate information about the people he/she is studying. Observable details (like daily time allotment) and more hidden details (like taboo behaviour) are more easily observed and understandable over a longer period of time. A strength of observation and interaction over long periods of time is that researchers can discover discrepancies between what participants say (and often believe) should happen (the formal system) and what actually does happen, or between different aspects of the formal system; in contrast, a one-time survey of people's answers to a set of questions might be quite consistent, but is less likely to show conflicts between different aspects of the social system or between conscious representations and behavior.

Participant observation has its roots in anthropology and as a methodology can be attributed to Frank Hamilton Cushing in his study of the Zuni Indians in the later part of the nineteenth century, followed by the studies of non-Western societies by people such as Bronislaw Malinowski, Edward Evans-Pritchard, and Margaret Mead in the first half of the twentieth century. It emerged as the principal approach to ethnographic research by anthropologists and relied on the cultivation of personal relationships with local informants as a way of learning about a culture, involving both observing and participating in the social life of a group. By living with the cultures they studied, these researchers were able to formulate first hand accounts of their lives and gain novel insights.

The sociological methods known as grounded theory (Glazer and Strauss) overlap significantly with the more formalized versions of participant observation.

This same method of study has also been applied to groups within Western society, and is especially successful in the study of sub-cultures or groups sharing a strong sense of identity, where only by taking part might the observer truly get access to the lives of those being studied. A variant of participant observation is "observing participation," described by Marek M. Kaminski, who explored prison subculture being a political prisoner in communist Poland in 1985.

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da:Deltagerobservation de:Teilnehmende Beobachtung es:Observación participativa hr:Sudioničko promatranje ja:参与観察

Participant observation

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