Read more Plus Minus My favourites Information about Innovation and entrepreneurship in education Favourite Download pdf-file Facebook
Woman on street

Participant observation is an ethnographic field research method, where the basic idea is that you can acquire insight about a cultural environment by both observing and participating in it. Participant observation is useful particularly in the explorative phase in the beginning of a project and as a starting point for and important supplement to qualitative interviews.

The method can be used for examining specific activities (eg. workflows, free time activities, social dining) in a defined environment (eg. a classroom, a train station, a hospital, at home).

As such, participant observation can help gain insights about phenomena and practices, which may otherwise be difficult to uncover merely through interviews, because there may be aspects that the informants might not recall, are aware of – or are unable to explain though interviews. Participant observation can also reveal possible differences between what is said and what is actually done. This knowledge can be used subsequently to make the qualitative interview more relevant and contribute to significant insights about the empirical context.


Below you will find instructions for activities before, during and after the participant observation.


  • Before starting the participant observation, it is necessary to clarify how much time will be spend on the participant observation, and whether it is possible to get access to the specific activity and environment.
  • Also consider what is ethically sound. As a rule, it is always a good idea to inform the people involved in the participant observation.
  • Prepare a brief explanation of who you are and what your errand is. This can be used to inform stakeholders during the participant observations and in advance (if needed).
  • Agree on in the teams who does what (who writes notes, who takes photos, who focuses on participating)
  • Determine what the purpose of the participant observation is:
    • If the purpose is to formulate new thoughts, ideas and hypotheses, focus on an open observation, ie. try to participate in as many different contexts as possible and test different angles and be curious.
    • If, on the other hand, the purpose is to further develop loose assumptions and test hypotheses, it is a good idea to carry out a focused observation, where you know in advance what to look for. Often the approach will entail a combination of open and focused observation.
  • Before initiating the participant observation an observation field guide should be developed. For inspiration take a look at this template with focal points related to participant observation.


  • The students document their observations using e.g. notes, photography and possibly video recording.
  • Be aware to keep an open mind. It may be difficult to know what to focus on, so it is important that the students collect as much qualitative data as possible to analyze subsequently.
  • The degree of participation may vary depending on the specific situation. E.g. if it is a major public event, where there is only a low degree of interaction with the other participants, or a smaller and delimited space where the observer is more integrative part of the social interaction. Try to participate actively and conversely with the other people present.




Observations will always be personal and unique. Therefore, they can not be quantified, but by using various analytical methods (such as Cluster analysis, How might we…? and Challenge map, etc.), the data from observations can be translated into insights that can inspire the development of new solutions.

Worth Considering

To enhance the quality of the research material consider carrying out observations of the same place and same type of activities repeatedly.
It can be efficient to follow up with qualitative interviews, where material (e.g. photos, quotes, user journeys) from the observations are used as reference points in the conversations to enable deeper insights.


  • Clarify the purpose of the participant observation and develop an observation field guide.
  • For documentation purposes bring: note pad, pen and camera (smartphone). If the students are divided into larger groups, allow them to observe alone or two people together. Write notes separately and compare observations subsequently.
  • Make possible agreements with relevant stakeholders in advance, if the observations take place in private areas.


Lars Kaijser & Magnus Öhlander (red): Etnologiskt Fältarbete, Studentlitteratur (1999)

Kirsten Hastrup, Cecilie Rubow & Tine Tjørnhøj Thomsen: Kulturanalyse, Kort fortalt, Samfundslitteratur (2011).

Aull-Davies, Charlotte, Reflexive Ethnography, Routledge, 2008

Czarniawska, Barbara, Shadowing and other techniques for doing fieldwork in modern societies, Liber AB, 2007

Ehn, Billy og Löfgren, Orvar, The Secret World of Doing Nothing, University of California Press, Berkeley 2010

Ehn, Billy og Löfgren, Orvar, Kulturanalyser, Klim, 2006

Show all methods