History and development
Participant observation was used extensively by Frank Hamilton Cushing in his study of the Zuni in the later part of the nineteenth century, followed by the studies of non-Western societies by people such as Bronisław Malinowski, E.E. Evans-Pritchard, and Margaret Mead in the first half of the twentieth century. It emerged as the principal approach to ethnographic research by anthropologists and relied on the cultivation of personal relationships with local informants as a way of learning about a culture, involving both observing and participating in the social life of a group. By living with the cultures they studied, researchers were able to formulate first-hand accounts of their lives and gain novel insights. This same method of study has also been applied to groups within Western society and is especially successful in the study of sub-cultures or groups sharing a strong sense of identity, where only by taking part may the observer truly get access to the lives of those being studied. The postmortem publication of Grenville Goodwin's decade of work as a participant-observer with the Western Apache, The Social Organization of the Western Apache, established him as a prominent figure in the field of ethnology.
Since the 1980s, some anthropologists and other social scientists have questioned the degree to which participant observation can give veridical insight into the minds of other people. At the same time, a more formalized qualitative research program known as grounded theory, initiated by Glaser and Strauss, began gaining currency within American sociology and related fields such as public health. In response to these challenges, some ethnographers have refined their methods, either making them more amenable to formal hypothesis-testing and replicability or framing their interpretations within a more carefully considered epistemology.
The development of participant-observation as a research tool has therefore not been a haphazard process, but instead has involved a great deal of self-criticism and review. It has, as a result, become specialized. Visual anthropology can be viewed as a subset of methods of participant-observation, as the central questions in that field have to do with how to take a camera into the field, while dealing with such issues as the observer effect. Issues with entry into the field have evolved into a separate subfield. Clifford Geertz's famous essay on how to approach the multi-faceted arena of human action from an observational point of view, in Interpretation of Cultures uses the simple example of a human wink, perceived in a cultural context far from home.