What are different types of participant observation? What are advantages and disadvantages of each type?

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The first type of observation method is whereby the researcher is a participant and chooses to directly take part in the activities of the group under observation while doing research. The advantage of this method is that it enables the researcher to get closer to the target and gain their trust. As a result, the locals open up more, and the researcher gets an in-depth view. The disadvantage is that since the researcher is too close to the target population, they might miss crucial details about the study as they focuses on the personal issues of the people under observation.

The second type is non-participant, whereby the researcher observes without participating in the group's activities. The advantage of this method is that the data collected will be more authentic, since the target population won't be influenced by the researcher, who is not close to them. The group will just continue with their normal activities and ignore the visitor. The disadvantage is that the researcher may miss out on community secrets since they don't directly participate in anything.

The third type is covert, whereby the researcher observes the participants in secret. The advantage of this method is that it allows the researcher to see the target population in their natural behaviors—they don't have to act because they are on camera. The disadvantage of this method is that it may lead to ethical issues such as deception.

The fourth type is overt, whereby the researcher lets the participants know that they, the researcher, will be observing them. The advantage of this method is that it is ethical. The disadvantage is that participants may act in an unnatural way since they know they are being watched.

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Participant observation is a method of data collection used often in qualitative research, especially the field of cultural anthropology. The goal is to gain detailed knowledge of people through observation and involvement in the daily activities of the participants, usually over an extended period of time.

Types of participant observation are categorized based on the degree to which the researcher becomes involved with the subjects. In non-participatory observation, the researcher has no direct contact with those observed. An advantage of this method is to limit the researcher’s influence on the subjects, but a disadvantage is not being able to establish rapport or ask questions. Less extreme is passive participation in which the researcher limits interaction, acting principally as a recorder. This method has similar advantages and disadvantages as those mentioned above. In moderate participation, the researcher balances involvement with participants and objective distance to strike a balance between these advantages and disadvantages.

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In active participation, the researcher becomes a member of the group. This method has the advantage of allowing the observer to fully comprehend the subject matter from an insider’s perspective. However, this level of involvement increases the chances of researcher bias. With complete participation, a researcher is a member of the group being studied before the research begins. This level of participation especially risks the researcher losing objectivity.  

In general, participant observation has the disadvantage of the observer influencing people’s behavior, leading to flawed data. Additionally, the observer’s own biases can skew observations and interpretations. Triangulation (gathering data from multiple sources or observers) can help ensure that data is valid.

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