Qualitative Methods in Monitoring and Evaluation: Observation, Participant Observation, and M&E

Observation and participant observation are both very important data collection tools that evaluators use throughout the project cycle. Evaluators use observation and participant observation to gather data about project inputs, outputs, and outcomes. With regard to monitoring and evaluation, observation generally refers to when an evaluator observes project activities in action. Observation allows the evaluator to see what is happening in the project. In contrast, participant observation refers to when evaluator participants as he or she observes, talking with stakeholders and participating in project activities. As a participant, the evaluator gains a more in-depth understanding of project activities and stakeholder perceptions.

Merrian (2009) suggests that we should consider our observation and participant observation research on a continuum that depicts the role between the observer and the observed.  The author delineates the division of the continuum:

  • Complete observer
  • Observer as participant
  • Participant as observer
  • Collaborative partner (research role not concealed)
  • Complete participant (research role concealed)

When evaluators conduct participant observation, they find themselves somewhere along this continuum between complete observer and complete participant.  Usually, evaluators want to find themselves playing the collaborative partner role, where they are able to gain an emic perspective that can be useful for project planning, monitoring, and evaluation.

Complete Observation

When we use complete observation, we observe the project population without interacting with stakeholders, towards seeing their behavior only.   We actually do this all of the time when we are visiting projects.  Sometimes when we visit a project, we make observations about it, and incorporate these observations into our conclusions, without thinking of this as research or data collection.

The key here is that the evaluator remains separate from the project population, and is not interacting or asking questions.  The evaluator is simply observing and coming away with some preliminary conclusions as a complete observer.

Observation can be a very useful as a part of an M&E plan that incorporates several different methods, throughout the planning, implementation, and evaluation phases of a project.   We oftentimes use observation when we are planning, to observe need.  This can be an important part of a needs assessment, especially if we have an observation plan.  We also use observation to observe or watch the implementation process, to see who is participating and who is not. We oftentimes use observation to compare what people are doing with what they saying, and to add depth to our evaluation

Participant Observation: Gathering the Emic Perspective

According to Bernard (2011), participant observation gives us a unique understanding of the research or project community, as you get an intuitive understanding about the culture from participating in it. Schensul and LeCompte (2013) tell us that participant observation gives us an intuitive and intellectual grasp of the ways that society is organized and prioritized, and how people relate to each other.  For evaluators, this includes what is culturally appropriate, what projects might work, how a project is working during its implementation, and what the impact of the project is.

When we engage in participant observation, our hope is to be accepted as an insider, or to get to the backstage where you are a true participant. Bernard tells us that participant observation involves getting close enough to people so that they feel comfortable telling us about their lives, thus countering the observer effect we get in observation and participant observation, and allowing us to gain an emic understanding.

Evaluators use participant observation in the planning, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of projects.  We also use participant observation to help craft our later research including interview questions.   In the planning phase, we use participant observation to assess a community’s needs and appropriate ways to craft our development projects. In the implementation phase, we use participant observation to improve an ongoing activity, such as a training workshop, as we monitor it.  We might ask if participants are engaged, and if not, why not, and what can we do about it.   Very important, we use participant observation to add validity to our monitoring efforts.  Participant observation helps us to see and understand what people are doing, which we can compare to what people are saying.  It helps us to see if people are doing something different from what they say that they do.   Similarly, we use participant observation to add depth to our evaluations, as it allows us to witness and understand behavioral or attitudinal change.   We see and understand how participants are using their new skills, for example.  As above, it also adds validity to our evaluation efforts if we can compare what people say with what they do.

Observations and Field Notes

We need to consider ahead of time what we will observe when we use these methods. My advice as you use observation and participant observation is to observe everything that is relevant to a project. A well-known participant observer, Spradley (1980), notes that we should consider what people do (cultural behavior), what people know (cultural knowledge), and what people make and use (cultural artifacts).   As per Spradley, we should view:

  • Objects,
  • Acts,
  • Activities,
  • Events,
  • Time,
  • Actors,
  • Feelings, and
  • Space.

As you engage in observation and participant observation, you usually write notes that become your raw data. I usually take a few notes when I am engaging in participant observation.  I also will take down direct quotations if I think that they would be useful later.  When I leave the setting, I immediately summarize or outline my observations, drawing a diagram of the setting and the movements of community members to help give depth to my observations.  This usually includes verbal descriptions of the setting, the people, and the activities, as per Spradley, above.

After engaging in observation and participant observation and writing up my notes, I usually step back for a day or two to mull over my thoughts.  I then return to my notes and add in analysis or areas where I need to conduct more research.  If I have typed up my notes, I add my commentary or analysis as comment bubbles.  If I have hand written notes, I write my thoughts in the margins.

Concluding Thoughts

As we engage in observation and participant observation, we need to take into account potential observer effects, the need to resist collecting data that is not relevant to our project, ethical issues, and potential micropolitics.

Also, we should consider that the observations that we make and the questions that we have will depend on our own thought processes and biases.  Detecting our own biases is one important step in collecting valid and reliable data from observation, participant observation, and other qualitative methods.  Even if we try to approach an issue without been overly biased, we need to understand that our own experiences that we bring into our observations impact what we see and our interpretations of it.  This can lead us to be imperfect interpreters of another or even our own culture.

H. Russell Bernard, Research Methods in Anthropology, 5th ed., Maryland: Alta Mira, 2011.
Sharan Merriam, Qualitative Research: A Guide to Design and Implementation, San Francisco: Wiley, 2009.
Jean Schensul and Margaret LeCompte. Essential Ethnographic Methods, 2nd ed., Maryland: Alta Mira, 2013.
James Spradley. Participant Observation. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1980.

About the Author:

Dr. Beverly Peters has more than twenty years of experience teaching, conducting qualitative research, and managing community development, microcredit, infrastructure, and democratization projects in several countries in Africa. As a consultant, Dr. Peters worked on EU and USAID funded infrastructure, education, and microcredit projects in South Africa and Mozambique. She also conceptualized and developed the proposal for Darfur Peace and Development Organization’s women’s crisis center, a center that provides physical and economic assistance to women survivors of violence in the IDP camps in Darfur. Dr. Peters has a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh. Learn more about Dr. Peters.

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