While conducting observations, the investigator may take the role of either a participant or non-participant observer. In participant observation, the investigator actively participates in the group activities, and thereby, becomes a part of the situation that is observed.
Anthropologists make extensive use of participant observation in studying the behaviors of and cultural practices in tribal groups. They believe that a phenomenon can be best understood only when the researcher experiences the situation by himself.
Even in a laboratory set up, when a researcher administers a test to a subject, his observation of the subject’s behaviour can best be described as participant observation. Teacher’s observation of students’ behaviour in the classroom and observation of your friend’s behaviour in a social get together are examples of participant observation.
The participant observation can be overt in that the subjects know that they are observed or covert in which the researcher disguises his identity and acts like any other participant. Covert participant observation yields more meaningful data, but can be criticized on ethical grounds. The overt participant observation has a major drawback of not assessing the true picture of activities, as the subjects would change their activities in the presence of the observer.