Observations are built on the assumption that seeing how people behave is more valid than asking how people would behave. An observation can be either

  • non-participant or participant;
  • covert or overt

Please note that the observation method in general share the following problems (which will not be repeated again, though relevant throughout this page)

  • not replicable, thus might not be reliable
  • involves selection, interpretation and reconstruction of ideas and events, which might affect the validity
  • the Hawthorne/observer effect (people behave less naturally when they know they're being observed) is present in overt observations, however, if a participant from a covert observation becomes suspicious about the researcher's identity, the Hawthorne effect will emerge.

Non-participant observation

The researcher observes the research subject without participating in the behaviour being studied. Usually the subject is unaware of being observed. Parke&Griffiths (2002) "Non-participant observation usually relies on the researcher being unknown to the group under study...[they] can study a situation in its natural setting without altering that setting"


  • Studies behaviour in a natural setting, so likely to be valid
  • Access to people who are unwilling to be studied, e.g. those who engage in illegal, secret or personally embarrassing behaviours


  • Might fail to capture depth, richness and intimate details of behaviour
  • Unethical to observe/study people without their consent (if covert)

Participant observation

The researcher takes part in the behaviour being studied. Downes&Rock (2003) "the claim social behaviour cannot be understood unless it is personally experienced". It aims to achieve verstehen (the researcher's ability to see things from the subject's viewpoint/empathy)


  • A '360-degree' view: the researcher can witness and experience what people actually do
  • (It is believed to be) able to achieve verstehen
  • Close access to groups which are difficult/impossible to be studied using other methods, e.g. most gang members would not care to respond to questionnaires/interviews.


  • Lots of time, effort and money are required
  • Might be hard to get sponsorship to gain access to certain groups
  • Risk of 'going native' if the researcher becomes too involved
  • It's impossible to study 'everyone at all times and locations', thus it becomes 'a matter of personal choice as to what data are recorded, collected and observed' (Parke&Griffiths)
  • Difficult to balance the roles as a researcher and as a participant
  • The characteristics of the researcher must match those being observed, e.g. a man cannot participant-observe a group of nuns

An example of studies using covert observation is Venkatesh's 2009 study Gang Leader for a Day.

Overt observation

The research subjects are aware of being observed.


  • More ethical than covert observations since permission is asked
  • The subjects might hold back certain aspects of their normal behaviour which they don't want the researcher to see. Validity might be affected in this way

Covert observation

The research subjects are unaware of being observed.


  • Difficult to get in/out if the group is exclusive to the public
  • Risk of exposure, which might be dangerous to the researcher
  • Cannot take notes, ask too many questions or openly record conversations
  • Ethical concerns

An example of studies using covert observation is Laud Humphrey's 1970 study Tea Room Trade.

Examples of research

Overt participant:

Learning to Labour - Paul Willis

The Making of a Moonie - Eileen Barker

Overt non-participant:

Covert participant:

A Glasgow Gang Observed - James Patrick

Covert non-participant:

Tea Room Trade - Laud Humphrey

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