Ethnography: Mitigating Observer Bias

The following is a modified excerpt from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp. 207-212).

In qualitative research, the researcher – including the in-depth interviewer, focus group moderator, coder in content Observationanalysis, and observer – is the instrument, meaning that the qualitative researcher wields substantial control in the design content, the gathering of data, the outcomes, and interpretation of the research.  Ethnography is no different in that the observer – albeit not controlling participants’ natural environment – plays a central role in creating the data for the study by way of recording observations.  In this respect, the credibility of an ethnographic study essentially rests on the observer’s ability to identify and record the relevant observations.

The necessary observer skills have been discussed elsewhere in Research Design Review – for example, “The Importance of Analytical Sensibilities to Observation in Ethnography.” Without these skills, an observer has the potential for biasing the data which in turn will negatively impact the analysis, interpretation, transferability, and ultimate usefulness of an ethnographic study.  The potential for bias exists regardless of observer role. An offsite, non-participant observer may knowingly or not impose subjective values on an observed event – e.g., ignoring certain comments the observer finds personally offensive in a study of an online forum discussing alcohol use – while an onsite observer, operating either overtly or covertly, may bias results by way of personal characteristics (such as age or racial identity) and/or inappropriate behavior (such as personal commentary during the observed event).

The effects of possible observer bias should be anticipated in the design of ethnographic research and can be mitigated by the integration of many quality features, including those having to do with the implementation of the observation guide and observation grid. Here are five quality features to mitigate observer bias specific to who the observer is and how the observer thinks:

  • Matching onsite observers with study participants. Onsite observers should be “matched” to the study participants to the extent warranted by the study environment and objectives.


  • Observers must be trained to play the dual role of “insider” and “outsider.” Observers must learn to play a dual role as both “insider” – observing events from the participants’ perspective – and “outsider” – observing events with an objective, value-free frame of mind. This is a critical skill and, if the observer was to learn only one thing in training, this is the skill to focus on.  A dual perspective bolsters the credibility of the data by fostering honest accounts of the observed events by way of internalizing participants’ meaning while at the same time minimizing the possibility of observer bias by casting an objective, non-judgmental eye.


  • Continually monitor observers’ objectivity. Objectivity is paramount in all research but particularly in ethnography when the researcher/observer may spend extraordinary amount of time in the field and, depending on the observer role, operate among the participants. For this reason, an ethnographic study needs to be continually monitored and controlled for the possibility of observers’ inappropriate value judgments and other groundless interjections in the data.


  • Adequate training in “acting” skills. Onsite participant observation requires a certain amount of “acting” from the observers. The ability to step outside oneself to take on and maintain a different persona while “in character” as a participant in ethnographic observations is an important skill. The abilities to “blend in” and “not make waves” help minimize observers’ effects on the behaviors and events they are observing. In this way, observers are less likely to bias (i.e., change in a distorting way) what they are trying to objectively observe.

An observer’s acting skills are particularly important in covert participant observations where the observer is concealing his or her identity to the participants. Covert participation also requires an observer who is comfortable with the idea of deception.  For many people, covert observation may cause tension which may manifest itself in ways that will cause the observer to behave awkwardly (including a compulsion to confess the observer’s true identity), distorting the behaviors and other aspects of the observed event. To minimize observer bias in these situations, the researcher must select observers who are completely accepting of the covert role while engaging with participants so as to not negatively affect the credibility of the data they gather for their study.


  • Observers must engage in constant self-evaluation. It is the responsibility of the observer to engage in constant and detailed self-evaluation, such as maintaining a reflexive journal, about how the observer may have changed the outcomes being observed. This becomes a critical tool in formulating (and tempering) one’s conclusions about the study and thereby enhancing the credibility of the study through disclosure of this self-critique process.


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