Participant observation involves joining or living with a group and becoming a part of the action. Members of the group being observed — for instance, prison inmates — may or may not know the observer’s true identity, but he or she is seen as being part of the group.
This method of observation is common in sociological and anthropological research, as well as in communication research. It allows the information gatherer to get direct experience and to reduce reliance on the expertise or testimony of others. In becoming part of the “scene,” the observer begins to understand it as an insider and come up with ideas that might need to be explored.
Nellie Bly was an early proponent of participant observation as a way to get an enterprising news report. She arranged to have herself declared mentally incompetent in order to be committed to a mental hospital so that she could see, first-hand, the conditions in which mental patients lived.
Participant observation is an expensive technique, requiring a substantial amount of time in the field. It is also fraught with ethical and legal issues. Members of ABC News’ Prime Time Live got jobs in several Food Lion supermarkets in order to place hidden cameras and capture video of employees re-dating the expiration labels on old meat and, in some cases, repackaging the meat to be sold as fresh. The report resulted in a lawsuit against ABC and in a jury verdict that awarded Food Lion $5.5 million in damages. The television network eventually prevailed in having the verdict overturned, but not until it had spent millions in legal fees. (Barringer) This is why it is important to consider the ethical and legal implications of the techniques you employ in researching as we will discuss in Lesson 7.