Category A: Observations

Category A: Observations

What is it?

Observations are about looking at or interacting with someone because you need to know more about their behavior or needs; both known and unknown. They can be carried out as participatory observation or as non-participatory observation. Participatory observation means using your own person and presence to gain personal experience with the informants. This means you gain an insight into what it is like to be them. This method provides knowledge of what your informants are actually doing.

Non-participatory observation means not interacting directly with the informants and this method is based on taking pictures, recording video, or taking notes at a distance. The method works well if you want to learn more about informants’ behavior and the environment they move in. Both participatory and non-participatory observation used in combination can shed light on what your informants do, and what it’s like doing it.

How is it done?

Limit the challenge in a field of inquiry

You begin by finding out exactly what you want to know something about.


Formulate the challenge from the point of view of the informants.

Find the informants

The informants are people who either know or can do something you want to learn about. It is important to conduct the observations where your informants are. You have to be in the situation with the people you want to know something about.

Doing participatory observation

Go to the field and spend time with the informants. Make sure you do what they do. Use your own body to acquire insight into the world of the informants and don’t be afraid to ask them questions along the way.

Doing non-participatory observation

Pay attention to what the informants are doing, how they do it, and why they do it. Document this using handwritten notes, photos, or video.

Analyze your observations

Keep the challenge in mind and analyze the observations. If the challenge is a specific problem it is a good idea to look for solutions in the informants actions.

Develop constructive changes

Use the analyzed observations as a basis for improvements.

What does it take?

Time frame

From 2 hours to 5 days. Both participatory and non-participatory observation demands being with the informants for a certain amount of time. After the observations you should set aside at least 2-4 hours for analysis.


  • Notebook and a camera.
  • A whiteboard to present your observations.


The method demands 1-3 employees. They don’t necessarily need to have any specific skills but the method is furthered by an empathic and attentive approach towards the informants and a knack for writing things down quickly. Having more than 1 observer will enable comparative analysis.

Case 1 – Participatory observation


Eric is the director of a museum of regional history. Some time ago the museum had a new pamphlet made, which guided the visitors through the different parts of the museum. However, Eric has noticed that the pamphlets are often lying about different places inside the museum. Eric is guessing that the visitors pick up the pamphlet but don’t use it very much. He decides to use participant observation to find out why.


Eric asks his two employees Don and Julie to spend a day as normal guests at the museum. They are to follow the other guests around, listen to their conversation and strike up new conversations with them about the museum. They are also to act like their informants, which means disposing of the pamphlet at the same time and in the same manner as the informants. Don and Julie write down their observations along the way and takes pictures of the same things as the informants.


Don and Julie compare and discuss their observations. They both noticed how the guests dispose of the pamphlet right after the main attraction of the museum. They’ve also noticed how the guests look for the main attraction in the pamphlet first, and as it is on page 1 they go there straight away. Don and Julie compile their observations and suggest to Eric that they should redesign the museum so the main attraction is on the last page of the pamphlet and in the farthest corner of the museum.


Having used participant observation, the museum rearranges the items so the main attraction is not the first item to be seen. The result is a new pamphlet and a remodeling of the museum so the whole museum is appreciated.

Case 2: Non-participatory observation


Peter is a bartender at nightclub, which caters mostly to young people. He has on several occasions noticed people smoking inside despite it not being allowed. Because the nightclub could loose its license, the supervisor decides to ask Peter to do non-participatory observation to see if they can solve the problem.


Firstly Peter tries to formulate the challenge from the point of view of the informants, but as he doesn’t smoke it is difficult for him. Therefore he goes to work the next Friday night but not to work as a bartender. He goes there as any other guest and finds a place from where to observe. He also takes pictures of the nightclub when it is filled so he has documentation to use during the analysis.


When Peter returns home from the nightclub he goes through the material. He finds that the placing of the tables doesn’t allow for people to go out and smoke and come back in again easily. He has noticed that people look around for another possibility before lighting a cigarette but they don’t seem to be able to find a suitable alternative to smoking inside.


Having analyzed his observations, Peter suggests a rearranging of the tables to make room for a smokers cabin. This allows for the smokers to smoke inside and thereby not going outside through the table section.

More on the method

Observations are especially effective in combination with structured or semi-structured interviews and are an integral part of ethnoraid and experience testing .

Further readings on structures interviews:

Dewalt, Kathleen, Dewalt, Billie & Wayland, Coral. (1998) – Participant Observation i: Bernard, R. (red.) Handbook of Methods in Cultural Anthropology – Walnut Creek: Alta Mira Press

Tonkin, Elizabeth (1984) – Participant Observation pp. 216-223 i: R.F. Ellen (red.) Ethnographic Research – London: Academic Press