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Participant observation is a major research strategy which aims to gain a close and intimate familiarity with a given group of individuals (such as a religious, occupational, or deviant group) and their practices through an intensive involvement with people in their natural environment. The method originated in field work of social anthropologists and in the urban research of the Chicago School.
Such research usually involves a range of methods: informal interviews, direct observation, participation in the life of the group, collective discussions, analyses of the personal documents produced within the group, self-analysis, and life-histories. Thus, although the method is usually characterized as qualitative research, it can (and often does) include quantitative dimensions. Participant observation is usually undertaken over an extended period of time, ranging from several months to many years. An extended research time period means that the researcher will be able to obtain more detailed and accurate information about the people he/she is studying. Observable details (like daily time allotment) and more hidden details (like taboo behaviour) are more easily observed and understandable over a longer period of time.
Participant observation has its roots in anthropology and as a methodology can be attributed to Frank Hamilton Cushing in his study of the Zuni Indians in the later part of the nineteenth century, followed by the studies of non-Western societies by people such as Bronislaw Malinowski, Edward Evans-Pritchard, and Margaret Mead in the first half of the twentieth century. It emerged as the principal approach to ethnographic research by anthropologists and relied on the cultivation of personal relationships with local informants as a way of learning about a culture, involving both observing and participating in the social life of a group. By living with the cultures they studied, these researchers were able to formulate first hand accounts of their lives and gain novel insights.
This same method of study has also been applied to groups within Western society, and is especially successful in the study of sub-cultures or groups sharing a strong sense of identity, where only by taking part might the observer truly get access to the lives of those being studied.