Participant Observation Research in Organizational Behavior

Arch G. Woodside (Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA, USA)

Case Study Research

ISBN: 978-1-78560-461-4, eISBN: 978-1-78560-460-7

Publication date: 7 December 2016



At its best, participation observation (PO) includes the researcher living inside a formal or informal organization long enough to actually observe first-hand how the organization makes sense of its environment, frames problems and opportunities, plans and performs actions, evaluates outcomes, rewards and punishes its members, and celebrates and commiserates sacred, climatic, and/or exceptional events. The core feature of PO is being there — the researcher's presence in the same context as participants as events happen and not relying mostly on participants retrospections about what happened and the causes and consequences of what happened. In some studies PO data collection occurs unobtrusively — the researcher does not inform the organizations’ participants that she is conducting a study of their thinking and behavior — for example, in The Tearoom Trade (Humphreys, 1970) the researcher becomes a “watch queen” (lookout watching for police) in a men's room in park while others engage in homosexual acts; in The Informant (Eichenwald, 2000) an executive in an international manufacturing firm becomes an undercover researcher (with hidden cameras and listening devices) to collect data showing his colleagues planning and doing illegal price-fixing deals with executives in other firms. In most studies PO data collection is obtrusive with the organizations’ members knowing that a researcher is present for the purposes of observing, describing, and explaining what is occurring in the organization — for example, in Coming of Age in Samoa (Mead, 1943) the American researcher lived among the natives in the south Pacific island to describe rituals relating to the transformation of child to adult; in The Used Car Game (Browne, 1976) the researcher directly observed interactions of salesmen, customers, and sales managers for seven-to-ten hours a day for 15 months with all participants knowing that the researcher was “being there” to collect data to describe and understand their thinking and behavior. The intent for this chapter is not to present a full review of the PO literature; the focus here is to illustrate an obtrusive PO study in a formal organizational context in-depth. The main goals include (1) illustrating doing PO and (2) describing the value of PO research. This chapter serves to introduce the reader to relevant organizational PO literature and provides details of applying participant observation to the study of organizational behavior. The study applies an ethnographic approach to develop flow diagrams of the information processes and decision-making stages of corporate and plant executives in developing corporate purchasing agreements with suppliers. Participant observations of the processes to develop corporate purchasing agreements were conducted along with extensive personal interviews of plant buyers at seven plant locations of Epsilon Corporation — a multinational electronics firm with headquarter offices in New York City. The results indicate that valid and useful descriptions are possible of the information processes and decisions actually used to produce corporate purchasing agreements. Several diagnostic comments are provided to each of the four phases in the processes used to develop corporate purchasing agreements. A template for applying participant observation methods in case study research concludes the chapter.


Woodside, A.G. (2016), "Participant Observation Research in Organizational Behavior", Case Study Research, Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp. 331-352.

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