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24 APRIL 2016

The Stances of the Observer in Participant Observation

"The degree to which the researcher involves himself/herself in participation in the culture under study makes a difference in the quality and amount of data he/she will be able to collect. GOLD (1958) has provided a description of observer stances that extend Buford JUNKER's explanation of four theoretical stances for researchers conducting field observations. GOLD relates the four observation stances as follows:

At one extreme is the complete participant, who is a member of the group being studied and who conceals his/her researcher role from the group to avoid disrupting normal activity. The disadvantages of this stance are that the researcher may lack objectivity, the group members may feel distrustful of the researcher when the research role is revealed, and the ethics of the situation are questionable, since the group members are being deceived.

In the participant as observer stance, the researcher is a member of the group being studied, and the group is aware of the research activity. In this stance, the researcher is a participant in the group who is observing others and who is interested more in observing than in participating, as his/her participation is a given, since he/she is a member of the group. This role also has disadvantages, in that there is a trade off between the depth of the data revealed to the researcher and the level of confidentiality provided to the group for the information they provide.

The observer as participant stance enables the researcher to participate in the group activities as desired, yet the main role of the researcher in this stance is to collect data, and the group being studied is aware of the researcher's observation activities. In this stance, the researcher is an observer who is not a member of the group and who is interested in participating as a means for conducting better observation and, hence, generating more complete understanding of the group's activities. MERRIAM (1998) points out that, while the researcher may have access to many different people in this situation from whom he/she may obtain information, the group members control the level of information given. As ADLER and ADLER (1994, p.380) note, this 'peripheral membership role' enables the researcher to 'observe and interact closely enough with members to establish an insider's identity without participating in those activities constituting the core of group membership.'

The opposite extreme stance from the complete participant is the complete observer, in which the researcher is completely hidden from view while observing or when the researcher is in plain sight in a public setting, yet the public being studied is unaware of being observed. In either case, the observation in this stance is unobtrusive and unknown to participants. [21]"

(Barbara B. Kawulich, 2005)

Kawulich, B. (2005). 'Participant Observation as a Data Collection Method'. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 6(2). Retrieved from



2005 • Barbara Kawulich • Buford Junker • complete observer stance • complete participant stance • confidentiality • data collection method • data collection techniquesdeceptiondistrustfield methods • field observation • field research • field researcher • group membershipobjectivity • observation stances • observer as participant stance • observer stances • participant as observer stance • participant observation • Patricia Adler • peripheral membership role • Peter Adler • qualitative research • questionable ethics • Raymond Gold • researcher • researcher role • Sharan Merriam • sociological field observation • theoretical stances for researchers • typology of the participant observer roles


Simon Perkins
01 MAY 2015

The Nature of Social Worlds

"The notion of social worlds is used here to refer to a form of social organization which cannot be accurately delineated by spatial, territorial, formal, or membership boundaries. Rather, boundaries of social worlds must be determined by interaction and communication which transcend and cross over the more formal and traditional delineators of organization. The term social world is used here to develop a common referent for a number of related concepts which refer to similar phenomena, Thus, social world phenomena encompass that which other sociologists have referred to as: occupational contact networks, invisible colleges, behavior systems, activity systems, and subcultures. After tracing some of the sociological history of social world analysis, a series of concepts are developed which bring together and bind all of the previously mentioned concepts into a systematic whole. Major aspects of individual involvement, structural features of social worlds, levels of social world analysis, and some implications of a social world perspective are presented. In this way, a program for study and unification of related concepts is presented in preliminary form."

(David Unruh, 1980)

David Unruh (1980). "The Nature of Social Worlds" The Pacific Sociological Review, Vol. 23, No. 3 (Jul., 1980), pp. 271-296.



1980 • a social world perspective • accepting a common worldview • activity systems • assemblages of social actors • behaviour systemsbelief systems • boundaries of social worlds • cognitive orientation • collective commitmentcollective identity • collective representations • collectivity • common worldview • cultural perspective • cultural phenomenon • cultural traditionsDavid Unruh • diffuse worlds • ethnic communities • ethnic minorities • formal organisations • group membership • interaction and communication • invisible college • local worlds • located in relation to others • meaning systems • mediated interaction • networks of interrelated voluntary associations • occupational contact network • patterns of thought • perceptual framework • shared action • shared attitudes • shared common worldview • shared goals • shared intentions • shared meaningsshared practices • shared understandings • shared worldview • social construction of reality • social factssocial organisation • social unit • social world • social world analysis • social world phenomena • social worlds • spatial sites • subcultural communities • subculturethinking and acting as a group member • transcultural communities • united by a common worldview • universe of regularised mutual responsevoluntary participationweltanschauungworldview


Simon Perkins

Organisations, practices, actors, and events: Exploring inside the distance running social world

"This paper revisits Unruh's notions of social worlds, exploring the organisations, practices, events and actors involved within the culture of distance running, as an increasingly popular leisure activity. An ethnographic research design was utilised using a combination of interviews, observation and participant observation. Data was collected over a two-year period on a weekly basis at two local distance running clubs, and also at a series of international distance running events. This study examines the distance running world from the 'emic' perspective of the twenty participants involved. The key findings illustrate how the distance running social world permits both development and confirmation of a running identity and, with it, social fulfilment. In addition to the four main components of a distance running social world, this paper highlights a paradox whereby individuals follow an individual pursuit within the social world of the distance running community – highlighting that the focus is on both the individual and the social, an area which sociologists have to date not extensively analysed within the context of sport."

(Richard Shipway, Immy Holloway and Ian Jones, 2013)

Richard Shipway, Immy Holloway, Ian Jones (2013). "Organisations, practices, actors, and events: Exploring inside the distance running social world", International Review for the Sociology of Sport 2013;48 259-276.


2013anthropology • behavioural science • collective identityDavid Unruh • distance runner • distance running • distance running community • emic • emic perspective • emics • ethnographic researchfield research • folkloristics • group membership • healthy body • healthy mind • Ian Jones • identity production • Immy Holloway • individual pursuit • interview (research method)leisure activity • observer • participant observation • Richard Shipway • running • running body • running club • running community • running identity • serious leisure • social fulfillment • social fulfilment • social groupsocial identity • social identity theory • social sciencesocial worldsocial worldssport and recreation • sport ethnography • sport tourism


Simon Perkins

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