Participant observation (PO) is a research methodology where the researcher is immersed in the day-to-day activities of the participants. The objective is usually to record conduct under the widest range of possible settings. In this way, PO differs from naturalistic observation, because the latter does not involve interaction between the researcher and participants. PO was historically associated with a form of research in which the researcher resides for extended periods of time in a small community. Currently, PO is used in a wide variety of settings, and over varied periods of time, from single interactions to many years.
The methodology has several inherent characteristics that may lead to ethical issues if not properly understood. These include the following.
- The often long term nature of the interface between researcher and participants
- The wide range of relationship dynamics, such as status differences between the two parties, power differences and educational differences, as well as degrees of formality. Power differentials may be rooted in gender, class, health and other aspects
- The variety of settings, from close interpersonal interactions to observation of public meetings and actual participation in social events
- In many cases, the research will be taking place in settings that are unfamiliar to the researcher, making her/his presentation of self and interaction with others especially sensitive
- The ethical codes of the groups under study may well be different from those of the researcher’s home country/home institution. They may also be different from the ethical principles followed by the host government, non-governmental organizations in the area, or funding agencies for the research
- The potentially changing nature of the researcher’s roles and relationships over time
- The use of technology to document observations, including mapping, photography, video- and audio-recording
To conduct PO ethically, it is important that researchers reflect on the general principles of Tri-council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (TCPS) and how they can best be implemented in the context of PO. In completing the ethics protocol, they should consider the following.
Methodology: Researchers should fully explain the setting(s) for PO, what potential interactions are involved, how data will be gathered, the kinds of issues that might be discussed more formally, and detail as much as possible the anticipated process. It is fine to acknowledge the limitations of predicting ahead of time what will happen during the research, but details that can be anticipated should be stated
Participants: Describe the people and reflect on potential ethical issues that may arise in the context of the research. It is acceptable to disregard issues of sample size and inclusion/exclusion criteria unless these are relevant to your methods. The researcher should also explain how s/he plans to enter the field and make people more familiar with his/her presence and the nature of the research project
Potential harms: The researcher should expand as much as possible on the extent and variety of potential harm to participants, recognizing that these will primarily involve social, legal or psychological harms, depending on the nature of the research and the vulnerability of the group. The repercussions of breaching confidentiality may be greatly tied to risk of harm
Privacy and confidentiality: The researcher should provide information about how he/she will safeguard data once collected and treat sensitive information. This should be in line with data security requirements outlined in other University policies and guidelines. If there is a foreseeable risk that information may be requested by third parties, the researcher should discuss how s/he would respond to such a request
Informed consent: The researcher should elaborate on the appropriateness of a particular informed consent process (written or verbal) for the setting/group studied and should include means of informing the community/group/individuals of the researcher’s identity, purpose, topic of research and method; appropriateness of seeking consent from group leaders or spokespersons; informal/formal means of obtaining informed consent, relative to what is appropriate in the given setting. It is important to clearly explain ethical dilemmas that might arise, or limitations to ideal procedures in given contexts