What is the Participant Observation Method of Anthropology?



Participant observation, as is clear from its very name, is that observation of social events in which the observer takes part in the social events. In the words of Goode and Hatt, "This procedure is used when the Investigator can so disguise himself as to be accepted as a member of the group." In this way, the investigator lives like an ordinary member of the social group according to this method.

In the words of Young, "The participant observer, using non- controlled observation, generally lives or otherwise shares in the life of the group which he is studying." An example of such participant study is the study of the people of London by Charles Booth, study of Cornvile Social and Athletic Club by Wm. F. Whyte and the study of the Russian Molokan group by P.V. Young. It is through such studies that the famous social anthropologists like Margaret Mead, Malinowski and Abraham Kardiner have carried out important studies of many primitive societies.

As Lundberg has written. "In this application of the technique it is essential to realise that it is not only the the investigator himself but also the members of the group being studied who are to regard him as a participant." It is thus clear that so long as the members of the group do not accept the investigator as a member of their group, a participant observation will not be possible.

In her study of molokan group, P.V. Young has written in details how she could not, in the beginning, gain their confidence in her but how, in the end, she could gain the confidence of their men and women, young and old through her cleverness and power of understanding by avoiding all kinds of discussions with them and by treating them sympathetically and that it was only then that she was welcomed among them as a respectable scientist.

After she got a place in the group, her work was easy because the people of the group themselves began to invite her on various occasions. She could thus carry on a close, real and minute study of their behaviour in every field. It is necessary for a participant observation that the members of the group do not doubt in any way about the object of the investigator. The success depends on the cleverness and personality of the investigator.