The participating observation is a scientific investigation of the actions, behavior, or the effect of the action or behavior on an examination object, e.g a person or a group of people. The characteristic of this method is the participation of the researcher to the interactions of the participating people, which can be described as a research object (1).
The observation is used where researcher need to capture the social constitution of reality (2). By participating in face-to-face interactions and being exposed to direct experience of situations, aspects of acting and thinking become observeable, which would not be accessible in conversations and documents - of any kind - about these interactions (3)
For the scientist, the application of the method of participant observation is a constant swinging back and forth between proximity (participation) and distance (observation). The distance is essential to provide the scientific reflection during the observation.
The participation can range from mere physical presence, that may trigger changes in social interactions, up to full interaction.
If data are collected during the observation (e.g. minutes, field notes), one can speak of participant observation as a stand-alone methodology of qualitative research (3).
Participating observers are faced with the problem of limited perspective to observe.
Participant Observation Phases (refer to 4 and 5):
SELECTION OF THE EVENT:
The selection of the event is depends on the nature of the topic and questions of interest.
The participants of the event should have a sufficient level of interest and participation with respect to the topic and questions of interest.
A close relationship can develop confidence. As a result, the observed participants will speak with less constraints.
LOCATION OF THE PARTICIPATING OBSERVATION:
The location of the observation is dependent on the location of the event.
DURATION OF THE PARTICIPATING OBSERVATION:
The duration of the observation is dependent on the duration of the event and the needs of the analysis.
To a large extent, the success of a participating observation will be determined by the selection of a suitable researcher.
It is important that the researcher is able to establish rapport in some extent. The researcher should have some (intellectual, social ...) connections with the participants in order to be accepted as a member of the community in order to obtain quality data. This will help to establish rapport and hence degrade constraints of the participants, in oder to set the stage for the quality of observable events and experiences.
The host should try to focus on detailed statements and also to deepen individual statements, in order to obtain a detailed picture of the underlying structures.
The starting point of the participating observation is a real situation/action, that is observed by the researcher as a participant as well as an observer. The researcher is trying to find meaningful elements and behaviour patterns of the participants.
The researcher conducts an observation analysis by dealing with the situation and studying the reactions of the people observed in the specific situation. It is important for the scientist to constantly swinging back and forth between proximity (participation) and distance (observation), in order to provide scientific reflection during the observation.
The researcher has to collect "field notes".
The researcher can also produce audio or video recordings of the event, in order to simplify subsequent evaluation and presentation. Participants need to be asked before the recording.
The researcher has to write observation minutes.
The researcher has to record his personal thoughts and feelings about the subject of study (reflexivity journal).
He must enter the study without bringing in any subjectivities into the data collection process.
EVALUATION AND REPORTING:
It is important to organize the collected data according to themes found in the interview, to categorize information gathered through interview, to find common themes, and to construct a coherent story from data.
Audio and video recording of the discussion will help to analyse and evaluate the focus group.
On the basis of the organized and theme-structered data collection as well as recording data and minutes, relevant categories have to be formed. The reflexivity journal with own otes and impressions can help to deepen the impression.
IMPORTANT ASPECTS OF THE EVALUATION PHASE:
What is the true meaning behind each statement? Do all participants use the same wording?
What is the context of a statement within the discussion?
Is a statement a result of an open question, or was is made because of a statement of any other participant?
Are the various statements of the same person consistent?
Did you take into account the number and details of certain discussion points?
Does the discussion return to the same few central key issues?
Do all participants take part intensively? Why? Why not?
Are the statements confined to a few participants?
Did you take into account the emotional intensity of the statements? In particular, audio and video recordings are very helpful here. An altered tone, frequently changing seating positions, raising the voice, interrupting another participant may indicate emotional reactions.