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

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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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