The Five Observer Roles in Ethnography

There are many variations of observational research, both off-and online, but central to the ethnographic approach is the role of the observer. This role has to do with both the physical as well as the psychological or emotional distance between the observer and the observed, and can range from remote off-site observation to complete immersion and participation in the study activities.

Broadly speaking, the observer is conducting either nonparticipant or participant observation. In nonparticipant observation, the observer may be either off- or onsite; and, in participant observation, the observer may be passive, a participant-observer, or a complete participant. Importantly, the observer may switch roles in the course of a study, e.g., moving from an on-site nonparticipant observer to a passive observer, then a participant-observer, and then a complete participant. These five observer roles are depicted below.

ethnography observer roles

Nonparticipant Observation

As a nonparticipant, the observer is observing in an unobtrusive manner either remotely (off-site) or within the study environment (onsite). An off-site nonparticipant observation might be the study of an online community or forum without any involvement (participation) by the observer, or the observation of teaching methods via remote monitors located in a separate building.

Onsite nonparticipant observation moves the observer into the study environment and closer to the activity of interest; however, like off-site observation, the onsite nonparticipant observer is not engaging with participants. An example of this role is the work of Griffiths (2011) who worked as a change attendant at an amusement arcade in order to observe gambling behavior, and Lyall and Bartlett (2010) who observed how psychiatrists made decisions regarding patient leave by unobtrusively accompanying them on their ward rounds.

Participant Observation

In each of the three participant observation roles, the observer is located within the study environment and engaged with the participants at some level beyond mere observation. A passive participant observer, for example, conducting an ethnographic study of teamwork among soccer players on the field, might use breaks in the game to ask players questions regarding their experiences or help distribute water and towels after the game.

A participant-observer is more engaged with participants than in the passive role. For instance, in the soccer study mentioned earlier, the participant-observer might actually go on the field with the soccer players to hear what is discussed in the huddle.

The fifth and most involved observer role is the complete participant. In this role, the observer is fully engaged with participants. So, in the soccer study, the observer might join the team (assuming he/she has the necessary qualifications) and be involved in the team activities on and off the field. Schouten and McAlexander (1995) provide an example of the complete participant role in the study they conducted with owners of Harley-Davidson motorcycles to understand the biker subculture. They began their observations as onsite nonparticipant observers but shifted to participant-observers and then to complete participant observers when they decided that a fully engaged role would give them “an empathetic sense of a biker’s identity, psyche, and social interactions in the context of everyday life” (p.46).

The observer role or roles in an ethnographic study should be carefully determined and discussed during the design, analysis, and reporting phases of the research. Along with the particular role of the observer, the design, analysis, and reporting should give deliberate thought to the observer’s status; specifically, whether the observation will be overt or covert. This is an important factor in observational research that cannot be taken lightly for many reasons, not the least of which is the associated ethical considerations (which are discussed in this RDR article).

Griffiths, M. D. (2011). A typology of UK slot machine gamblers: A longitudinal observational and interview study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 9(6), 606–626.

Lyall, M., & Bartlett, A. (2010). Decision making in medium security: Can he have leave? Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 21(6), 887–901.

Schouten, J. W., & McAlexander, J. H. (1995). Subcultures of consumption: An ethnography of the new bikers. Journal of Consumer Research, 22, 43–61.

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