ethical issues in participant observation

Ethical Issues in Participant Observation

Participant observation is a qualitative method of data collection in research. It enables the researchers to fully participate in the the situation that they are studying. Thus researchers can become part of the life, event, or situation that they want to study. Researchers who want to dig deep into the life of the participant can get help from participant observation. On the other hand questionnaires and interviews cannot provide similar experience.

It is obvious that participant observation produces in depth data but this is only possible at the expense of observing participants’ life closely. This requires to maintain an ethical responsibility to keep the dignity, privacy, and willingness of the participants. The researcher can maintain each of the above mentioned ethical responsibilities and must provide evidence in the research.

Ethics in participant observation

The researcher should know the policy regarding research ethics established by the Ethical Conduct for Research involving Humans. They should reflect on this policy in relation to the participant observation requirements.

The following ethical responsibilities are important to consider while conducting participant observation.

Informed consent

It is the legal responsibility of the researcher to take consent from the participants to participate and observe. The researcher should explicitly explain how far and to what extent the actions and words of the participants will be recorded. Inform the participants and take consent if you will take any pictures or record any videos of the participants. Also inform the other participants about the kind of participation you will have throughout and how it can impact them. Another important information that you should provide to the participants is about the future consequences and possible implications of participation in the research.

The participants should have free will to give consent. The researcher has no right to force or over emphasize the participants. Any kind of deceit or fraud is legally a crime and the participant can claim that the researcher deceived him.

Privacy considerations

The researcher should inform the participants that in no way their privacy will be breached. In modern world privacy breach is a big concern but the researcher can take steps to avoid any infringement. The researcher needs to develop a trustful relationship with the participants to be able to observe them naturally. This trust means that the researcher intentionally or unintentionally will not disclose information or leak data other than promised.

Though it is not possible to draw a fine line where to stop observing and recording a participant’s behavior. Nobody wants to show inner feelings and personal behavior. Once you take consent and inform them about your participation you can observe people and situation without privacy threat.


As we already mentioned that very few people are willing to share their personal feelings and behavior in public. Let alone record them and use it in the research is a big thing for many people. Therefore, to get permission you need to build trust and become friend with the participants. Inform them about minor and major details of the participation and observation. Also tell them if there are any physical, psychological, social, or legal threats involved. The participants will know that you are not hiding anything from them and you are true to them. In this way, you will have a greater chance that the participants show their real behavior. They will be comfortable and allow you to record and use their personal data in your research.



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