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Participant Observation

  1. Judith Preissle

Published Online: 30 JAN 2010

DOI: 10.1002/9780470479216.corpsy0642

Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology

Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology

How to Cite

Preissle, J. 2010. Participant Observation. Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology. 1–2.

Author Information

  1. University of Georgia

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 30 JAN 2010


Participant observation is a qualitative research method for collecting data that depends on direct, firsthand sensory experience of human events, activities, and interactions. Researchers record and interpret what they see, hear, smell, touch, and taste in the course of watching, listening, and often, but not always, asking about what is occurring. Participant observation is often equated with sociological field research or field study and with anthropological ethnography, because methodologists in these two disciplines are most associated with the method's development and articulation. Field sociologists and sociocultural anthropologists pioneered methods of participant observation for several purposes. First, early-twentieth-century social scientists wanted to document the ways of living of non-Western societies before modernization changed them. Second, scholars in industrialized nations studied people and groups in their own nations about which little was publicly known. Some of this work focused on representing people's lives in particular times and places as they themselves experienced and understood it. Other work aimed to use the material to develop universals, abstractions, and generalizations about humans and their societies. Research also was formulated around social problems, such as how to improve the lives of the urban poor.


  • ethnography;
  • field study;
  • naturalistic psychology;
  • qualitative inquiry;
  • research methods