Date of Award

Spring 2007

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Grant L Cioffi


Participant observation is a research activity used in qualitative inquiry, particularly ethnography, where the aim is to understand the meanings and experiences of social actors. Researchers employing this activity take part in people's lives as a way of learning about them and their culture, and to gain understanding of social life processes. Often these activities in the field are referred to as "hanging out": that is, interacting with participants in an uncontrived fashion as they go about their daily lives.

Participation observation is multifaceted: participant observation is conducted within the framework of scientists' own and others' life worlds; participant observers try to experience the lives of others to the extent possible; researchers' relationships with participants, often personally and emotionally involved, are central to success; participant observers are present in the field concurrently in multiple dimensions; the situations that settings present determine, for the most part, researchers' experiences; and, as situations and participants' lives unfold, so do researchers' experiences. In settings, these aspects coalesce to result in many unknowns and complexities for participant observers.

This study examined the lived experiences of scientists who used participant observation as a research activity. Using Seidman's (1998) three-interview structure, I interviewed twelve researchers about their participant observation experiences. Two questions central to my study were what meaning do participant observers give to their participant observation experiences and to their research relationships? Phenomenology as my lens allowed me to access the complexity of this research method, particularly relationships formed for research purpose, from the perspectives of participant observers. I used van Manen's (1990) empirical approach to phenomenological research that involves the interplay of the following six research activities: (1) Turning to the nature of lived experience; (2) Investigating experience as we live it; (3) Reflecting on the essential themes; (4) The art of writing and rewriting; (5) Maintaining a strong and oriented relation; and, (6) Balancing the research context by considering parts and whole.

Based on my analysis of my participants' accounts of their experiences, first I identify and characterize using the following terms five essential themes of participant observation arising from my participants' experiences: existential, experiential, multidimensional, situational, and processual. I then describe essential themes of participant observation relationships. I identify them as having a professional/personal duality, built on commonalities, and trustful, respectful, and reciprocal. Within each theme, I describe constitutive components using my participants' words wherever possible. Following, I explore implications of my findings in two areas and suggest directions for future inquiry: one area concerns the nature of participant observation and the preparation of scientists who engage in it; the second area concerns informed consent in participant observation research.