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Participant Observation

Participant observation is an ethnographic method in which a researcher participates in, observes, and records the everyday activities and cultural aspects of a particular social group.

It typically includes research over an extended period of time (rather than a single session) and takes place where people live or work (rather than in a lab). Participant observation involves active engagement in activities in contrast to observation where researchers simply observe without interacting with people.

Related Links

Formal Publications

  • Participant observation: a guide for fieldworkers by Kathleen Musante DeWalt, Billie R. DeWalt (Available on GoogleBooks: - A textbook
  • Ethnography: principles in practice by Martyn Hammersley and Paul Atkinson - A textbook covering general principles of ethnography along with a strong introduction to the practical and ethical issues in both overt and covert participant observation
  • Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes by Robert M. Emerson - The ability to take good fieldnotes is key to producing useful insights from participant observation
  • Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography by John Van Maanen - In anthropological practice, the written ethnography is the end result of participant observation. This book examines different perspectives the researcher might bring to this writing.
  • Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research by Patricia L. Sunderland and Rita M. Denny - A guide to conducting research in a consumer environment.
  • Field Methods Casebook for Software Design by Dennis Wixon and Judith Ramey (Eds.)
  • Participant Observation by James P. Spradley. This is a book that describes, for beginning students, how to plan, conduct, and analyze data from participant observation studies.

Web Resources

  • AnthroDesign - - Discussion on the role of applied anthropology in the corporate, public sector, and medical contexts. There is a companion AnthroDesign group on Facebook
  • EPIC - Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference



Lifecycle: User research
Sources and contributors: 
Chauncey Wilson, Whitney Quesenbery
Released: 2012-04
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