How to Differentiate Between a Survey & Participant Observation

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Participant observation requires the researcher to get immersed in another culture.
Participant observation requires the researcher to get immersed in another culture. (Image: Reed Dance in Swaziland - tribal chiefs image by Elzbieta Sekowska from Fotolia.com)

Participant observation studies and surveys are easily differentiated, although they have some common characteristics. Social researchers, like marketing professionals or anthropologists, use both systems as qualitive research techniques. According to Minnesota State University, the method of participant observation is used to describe thoroughly people's behavior in their every day lives. Unlike surveys, participation observation methods require researchers to immerse themselves in a culture. Anthropological research methods, like participant observation, may require months of fieldwork, while surveys can be completed quickly and through different media, such as phones, mailers, online and in-person.

Surveys vs Participant Observation

To understand the difference between participant observation and survey is to realize that these research methods have different purposes. A survey is usually used to study the habits of people in a target group. In market research, surveys allow you to communicate with group members to understand their buying habits and purchasing power. Unlike participant observation methods, surveys do not require you to take part in the daily lives of your audience. Also, they usually require one-time communication. The goal of a survey is to identify each participant's wants within a group. The goal of participant observation is to record what you see and hear during people’s daily lives.

Surveys can be conducted using phones and other mediums.
Surveys can be conducted using phones and other mediums. (Image: enveloppes 5 image by thierry burot from Fotolia.com)

Participant observation data can include photos and sketches, recordings of people speaking, videos of people performing tasks, transcriptions, visual aids such as maps, and records of the observers' thoughts and emotions during the research. Survey data are generally in the form of questionnaires or structured interviews. Surveys are usually carefully developed to include a set of specific questions and instructions.

Other differentiations between surveys and participant observation methods are the changes in technology used to collect data. In mainstream U.S. culture, survey research is often integrated into the delivery of services. For example, a hotel room you rent may have a survey form on the desk asking for your feedback. A phone call to your bank may be followed by a message requesting your participation in a brief survey. You've probably also been asked to complete surveys after visiting websites.

Social researchers using participant observation may be using more advanced technology to record their data, by transcribing conversations or using a laptop, for example, but their main goal has not changed. They must still spend a great deal of time involving themselves within a culture to observe their own thoughts and emotions.

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