Participant Observation in a Qualitative Research, Reliable or Not?

Participant-observation is a data gathering tool that involves observation with the participants in a study using survey protocol or key informant interview (KII) guide. It is a very reliable source of information because researchers could actually see or observe the participants through immersion.

Experiences of the participants can be observed and recorded through this method. There is also triangulation to ensure that biases or personal preferences may not hinder the manner of observing and recording meaningful experiences of the study. Triangulation ensures study credibility and transferability.

Limitations To Any Participant Observation

Just like ay other data collection methods, participant observation has also its limitations:

  • The recorded observations about a group of people or event is never going to be the full description.
  • As mentioned before this is due to the selective nature of any type of recordable data process: it is inevitably influenced by researchers’ personal beliefs of what is relevant and important.
  • This is also plays out in the analysis of collected data; the researcher’s worldview invariably influences how he or she interprets and evaluates the data.

Observing” or “observant” participation has also been used to describe fieldwork which meant to highlight the way in which their partial or full membership in the community/subculture allows a different sort of access to the community and also shapes their perceptions in ways different from a full outsider.

There are advantages in using participant observation such as:

1. it affords the backstage culture or the inside story of a participant;

2. it allows richly detailed description such as the reasons, experiences, attitudes and dreams and aspirations of the participants;

3. it provides opportunities for viewing or participating in unexpected events; and

4. it improves data collection and interpretation.

There are also disadvantages of using participant observation in gathering information:

1. to rely on key informants rather than be interested in what happens out of the public eye;

2. to gain different understanding of what is being observed based on the key informants;

3. subsequent interpretations and representation problems occur when selected key informants are familiar; and

4. the information collected is observed based on individual interest in a setting or behavior rather than being a representative of what actually happens in a group or culture.

Although this method requires transparency and democracy during the process, the interpretations are integrated in the analysis. In reality there is a difference between what people say and do. With participant observation this discrepancy can be unveiled and discovered.

Thus, unveiling the secrecy and confidentiality of information make participant observation a very reliable tool in conducting a study.

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