Participant observation examples

Here are some examples of recent published books based on participant observation often in combination with other methods such as depth interviews. The quotations are snippets from the PsycINFO Database Records.

Jennifer Lois studied search and rescue volunteers.
  "Drawing on six years of participant observation and in-depth interviews, the author examines the emotional subculture of "Peak," a volunteer mountain-environment search and rescue team.
  Rescuers were not only confronted by physical dangers, but also by emotional challenges, including both keeping their own emotions in check during crisis situations, and managing the emotions of others, such as those they were rescuing. " (1)
David Barnard and colleagues provide a "view of patients, families, and their caregivers striving together to maintain comfort and hope in the face of incurable illness. Using a variety of qualitative research methods, including participant-observation, interviews, and journal keeping....These narratives weave together emotions, physical symptoms, spiritual concerns, and the stresses of family life, as well as the professional and personal challenges of providing hospice and palliative care.... It captures the diversity of people's aspirations and ideals as they face death, and the often challenging conflicts between their views of death and the views of the professionals who care for them. "(2)

Drawing on both participant observation and in-depth interviews, Merl Storr investigated

"what really goes on at these 'special' homosocial gatherings, where heterosexual women drink, laugh, shop, play party games and talk about sex."(3)


Danny Wilcox wrote a detailed ethnographic narrative of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), focusing on
"cultural rather than personal causes of drug dependence. The author also discusses how the symbolic action of AA language and culture is the key to recovery. This study yields critical information about the development and practice of alcoholism and other drug dependence. Through the shared linguistic and cultural interaction of AA, the US cultural ideology that emphasizes individualism, personal achievement, self-control, and self-reliance is shown to result in conflict; thus the gap between the perceived ideal and reality intensifies feelings of separation, alienation, and isolation leading to dependency. "(4)


Patricia and Peter Adler examined elementary school culture
"Based on 8 years of intensive insider participant observation in their own children's community, the authors discuss the vital components in the lives of preadolescents: popularity, friendships, cliques, social status, social isolation, loyalty, bullying, boy-girl relationships, and afterschool activities. They describe how friendships shift and change, how children are drawn into groups and excluded from them, how clique leaders maintain their power and popularity, and how the individuals' social experiences and feelings about themselves differ from the top of the pecking order to the bottom. The authors focus their attention on the peer culture of the children themselves and the way this culture extracts and modifies elements from adult culture."(5)

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  (1) Lois, J. (2003). Heroic efforts: The emotional culture of search and rescue volunteers. New York: New York University Press.
  (2) Barnard, D., Towers, A., Boston, P., & Lambrinidou, Y. (2000). Crossing over: Narratives of palliative care. New York: Oxford University Press.
  (3) Storr, M. (2003). Latex and lingerie: Shopping for pleasure at Ann Summers parties. New York: New York University Press.
  (4) Wilcox, D. M. (1998). Alcoholic thinking: Language, culture, and belief in Alcoholics Anonymous. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers/Greenwood Publishing Group.
  (5) Adler, P. A. A., Peter. (1998). Peer power: Preadolescent culture and identity. New Brunswick, NJ,: Rutgers University Press.