The Utility of Participant Observation in Applied Sociological Research

By Jan Ali [1]

Participant observation has long been an important social inquiry tool in sociological investigation of the social world and in applied sociology. It is a complex blend of methods and techniques of observation, informant interviewing, respondent interviewing, and document analysis. Researchers and social science practitioners use participant observation to gain a meaningful knowledge about the existence of a specific social world through experiencing “real” social milieus or through lived experience. The purpose of this paper is to offer a practical demonstration of the utility of participant observation as a method of social enquiry. I argue that, given the ‘religious’ nature of the Tablighi Jama’at, no other research method, whether qualitative or quantitative in nature, would have proven more useful and applicable other than participant observation. Only participant observation allowed me to enter the world’s largest Islamic revivalist movement through its Sydney group and gain an understanding about its social and cultural world – an understanding useful for sociology of religion and applied sociology.

Also, I want to argue that applied sociological research methods have the power to affect social change, including the researcher, and sociology as an academic discipline and practice needs to appreciate that ‘doing’ sociology has the power to change not only society, but ourselves as sociologists. Sociologists’ role then is not only to interpret the world but wherever warranted to change it including him or herself. In this light, this paper therefore discusses participant observation as a reflexive methodology that shows how the application of sociology can positively affect the researcher’s identity and worldview.


Participant Observation

On a day-to-day basis people make sense of their subjective world through interaction with each other and the meanings they assign to their actions and their environments (Blumer, 1969; Denzin, 1978). People experience social situations as ‘reality’, although they could be mistaken or hold an erroneous belief about it, because it has real consequences (Thomas and Thomas, 1928). The world of everyday life is a social construction (Berger and Luckman, 1966) and the conception of reality, by the insiders of this world, is not directly accessible to strangers (Schutz, 1967). The world of everyday life, as perceived from the insider’s perspective, is the quintessential reality to be delineated by participant observation. In the final analysis, therefore, participant observation attempts to unearth, make accessible, and expose the meanings people assign to their daily lives. Participant observation permits an understanding of the people being studied and their behaviour in direct reference to their own constructs and meanings about their subjective world. In terms of applied sociology, this is very important because, through participant observation, a better understanding of a social world is made possible. This in turn helps advance our collective knowledge of social phenomena, improve social interaction, and enhance human social life.

Participant observation is not a single method but a complex blend of methods and techniques such as observation, informant interviewing, respondent interviewing, and document analysis employed in researching particular types of subject matter. Instead of limiting the research, participant observation helps fulfil the research objective and purpose. Participant observation can be defined in various ways. Suffice it to say that it is a method of data collection that takes the researcher into the actual social setting or field enabling him or her to gain first hand experience and understanding of its complexity and inner realities.

Participant observation

The use of participant observation has not escaped criticisms. Critics first argue that the people being studied or specific social setting in one way or another are inevitably affected by the presence of the researcher. Secondly, they say that the researcher has to rely almost entirely on impressionistic interpretation of the information to reach generalizations (Van Krieken et al., 2000). They claim that the data gathered under such a method is highly likely to be unreliable, invalid, and over-generalized because of “observer bias”, “going native”, and “hearsay” (McCall and Simmons, 1969: 2).

While some critics denounce participant observation as a quixotic approach to coming to grips with the data, the proponents of participant observation celebrate its utility arguing that in comparison to other research methods, participant observation is less likely to be unreliable, biased, or invalid. The fact that the social world of the people being studied has its own internal system of checks and balance naturally authenticates the data (Lincoln and Guba , 1985) and any concerns for data contamination and researcher bias is dispelled (Van Krieken et al., 2000).

Within participant observation a range of participant roles exist. Buford Junker (1960) identifies four participant roles which can be used in conjunction with ea ch other or independently:

  1. complete participant,
  2. complete observer,
  3. participant-as-observer (more participant than observer), and
  4. observer-as-participant (more observer than participant).

In my research on the Tablighi Jama’at, I employed complete participant role. This was motivated by my sociological research into the Tablighi Jama’at.

By Aswami Yusof, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
By Aswami Yusof, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Tablighi Jama’at, which originated in India in 1927 and is the world’ s largest transnational Islamic revivalist movement, sees the West with suspicion. For the Tablighi Jama’at, modernity is seen as grossly polluted by Western imagination and therefore anything or anyone linked to it are viewed with a sense of apprehension. Modern Western thinking, the academy, and pedagogy are no exception and are perceived as anti-theology in general and anti-Islam in particular. As a consequence, the Tablighis (members of the Tablighi Jama’at) see social research as a mo de of investigation by the West (or by Muslims sympathetic to the West) and its values, to ascertain information for the purpose of monitoring and undermining the movement. They denounce social research as count er-productive bec ause its focus is on investigating the “social”, not the “ divine”. Social research is therefore devalued. As many Tablighis informed me during my research, the time, money, and energy invested in research can be better spent in the pa th of Allah (God). Their claim is that the Islamic way of life itself is a research: a research into the realm of divine and omnipotence of Allah. It is a way of life that seeks to find Allah. Thus, the Tablighis eschew giving interviews, filling questionnaires or participating in surveys. These are seen as worldly pursuits devoid of any genuine and pure fulfilments. It was for these reasons that I employed participant observation, in particular the role of complete participant. Although the Tablighis usually refuse to cooperate with any type of survey or research, on this occasion, they openly welcome d me because they were not required to fill any questionnaires or forms or take special time out to participate in any experiment and, most importantly, for them this was their opportunity to proselytise me.

Complete Participant

Photo: Jamie Kennedy via Flickr
Photo: Jamie Kennedy via Flickr

A complete participant usually withholds his or her true identity and purpose as a researcher in the field. The researcher participates in the aspects of daily living of the people being studied by learning to play the vital everyday roles successfully and interacting with them with natural ease. This is done, on the one hand, to avoid detection as a researcher and, on the other hand, to facilitate and secure acceptance into the participants’ setting so that the knowledge and understanding of the inner workings of their subjective world can be achieved: in short, so that the research objectives can be achieved.

In this sense, the basic tenet of complete participation is a role-pretence. 2 In role-pretence nothing matters as much as for the researcher to realize that he or she is pretending to be someone which he or she normally is not. In my case, however, no form of deception was employed. In fact, I unequivocally informed key members of the Tablighi Jama’at in Sydney that I was conducting an empirical research about the movement to learn more ab out it from a sociological perspective. Joining the movement was essentially to conduct empirical research about the Tablighi Jama’at. However, because I am a Muslim, my role as a Tablighi apprentice me ant that I also inevitably learnt more about Islam, my religion. Thus, during the data collection and in the final analysis, my complete participant role entailed a Muslim researching other Muslims – an insider’s perspective of a sociological phenomenon.

The role-pretence is for the duration of the research project. Therefore, in my case, for example, I had to be consistent with my complete participant role throughout the course of the research. I attended the movement ’s meetings and went on tour as both an apprentice Tablighi and a sociological researcher. To maintain my role as a complete participant, part of my everyday self as an ordinary person had to be opened up for minor changes, for instance, wearing kameez (long bagy shirt) and shalwar (baggy trousers), in light of accentuating my Tablighi self. Although I was able to balance up, with relative ease, my roles as a Tablighi ( complete participant self), an ordinary individual (actual self), and a researcher (professional self) in the context of the Tablighi Jama’at, for a non-Muslim researcher in particular this role reconciliation would have no doubt proven to be problematic.

It is worth pointing out, therefore, that the complete participant self was not totally an alien phenomenon for me given that this role had some common features consistent with my everyday self by the virtue of me being a Muslim. Accentuating my complete participant self or the Tablighi self, in this context, did not me an becoming alienated from my everyday self but indirectly giving my everyday self, particularly the embodiment of my Muslim identity, a clarity and expression. This was through learning more about the different social and cultural expressions of my ow n religion. As a Tablighi apprentice I managed to fulfill the dual role of an ordinary Muslim seeking to know more ab out his own religion and a complete participant undertaking an empirical research to understand a religious movement. Becoming a Tablighi apprentice, in the context of participant observation, me ant that I had to wear kameez and shalwar all the time when in fa ct I usually only wear them on special religious occasions—such as Eid al-Fitr (the feast at the completion of the fasting month of Ramadan), Edi al-Adha (the feast of sacrifice), Juma (Friday congregational prayer)—not shave when I am used to shaving everyday, and sleep on the floor when I am used to sleeping on a bed with an inner-sprung mattress. I did not have an issue with moving in and out of this assumed role. Perhaps for a non-Muslim, this situation this would pose a major problem, and it would potentially make the participants suspicious of the researcher’s interest and lead them to become aloof in their interactions with the researcher, possibly restricting the fl ow of information.

Participant Observation and Applied Sociology

Photo: Jamie Kennedy via Flickr
Photo: Jamie Kennedy via Flickr

Researching is an important and unique experience. In this section I want to argue that participant observation, apart from being a social enquiry tool, is a research experience in its own right and therefore a form of applied sociology. I see participant observation as the quintessential nexus of applied sociological methods – that is, in the application of sociological theory and practice.

Sociology encourages us to conceptualise social change as an ongoing process and social research theories teach us to remain objective in our attempt to understand a new social world and preserve the purity of the data. Despite this, change occurs in some measure in the newly discovered social world but, more importantly, it unavoidably occurs in the sociologist’s own expectations and behaviour as he or she responds to new and distinct patterns, and in recognition of past experiences/knowledge. Although I took every precaution not to ‘disturb’ the naturalness of the Tablighi social environment, the complete participant role inevitably had impact on me personally as I learnt more about my religion – Islam. Participant observation enabled me as a sociologist to advance fundamental knowledge about the Tablighi Jama’at as an important part of the phenomenon of Islamic revivalism. My research also contributes to Australian society’s understanding of an undiscovered part of Australian social fabric and an untapped Australian socio-cultural resource. It also provided me with a religious enlightenment which I can now apply to enrich my personal as well as professional life.

Thus, here is an empirical example of how a particular research method has the power to transform an individual subjectivity and how the application of sociological theory affects us. Applied sociology is therefore not only something that sociologists ‘do’ but it is also something that embodies us as practitioners of the discipline of sociology and defines who we are and our place in the world. Ultimately then, it is not just the social theories that carve out our sociological reflexivity, but also our professional endeavour – the research practice.


Participant observation has proven to be a vital and useful tool for the understanding of the unique world of the Tablighi Jama’at. However, more generally as part of qualitative research, participant observation em powers social science practitioners with a useful tool to study people within the context of their everyday social setting. In general social science practice, and in applied sociology in particular, participant observation is a very useful and powerful means of discovering the complex inner workings of many unexplored and unexplained social phenomena. But, on another level, participant observation is a reflexive methodology that helps social scientists affect change in society, as well as the practitioner’s self understanding.
Applied sociology research practice


Bio at the time of first publication (2008):

Dr Jan Ali is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Centre for Research on Social Inclusion at Macquarie University, investigating the most effective comm unity-based activities for improving relations between Muslim and non-Muslim Australians. He also coordinates and lectures in Cross-Cultural Communication at Macquarie University and Religion and Politics in Contemporary Society at University of Newcastle.

Credits and notes

Contact author for a list of references.

[1] This article was first published by Nexus in June 2008. Original Citation for this article: Ali, J. (2008), ‘The Utility of Participant Observation in Applied Sociological Research,’ Nexus June 20(2): 18-20.

[2] There is an opinion that sees role-pretence as unethical. However, in my research, the role-pretence operated strictly within the practices of social scientific research and no deception or falsity was used to gain access to the Tablighi Jama’at.