USC Dornsife College Of Letters Arts and Sciences

University of Southern California

Studying Faith

What is “participant observation”?

In the context of studying religious groups, fieldwork consists of deep immersion and “hanging out” in other people’s social and cultural worlds in order to capture what they experience as meaningful and significant. By observing and participating in a religious practice or ritual, and by asking questions and listening to people, the fieldworker can better grasp the ethical choices, values, meanings and truths that are distinctive to a particular spiritual or religious group. It is a process of open-ended discovery and is necessary to doin conjunction with interview methodology because, as you may find, people don’t always do what they say they do in their interviews.

Though your interviewees may clearly explain ideas or theoretical ideals in an interview, these ideas and ideals do not always correspond to the way things are really done in practice. This is why you need to go to the site of religious practice and observe what happens. Such contradictions do not necessarily mean people are lying to you. Instead, it could mean that there is a difference between what’s sanctioned or popularly accepted within a group and how people actually live and practice their faith. In fact, you may find such variance to be one of the most productive sites of critical inquiry about a group.

Keep in mind that you are the major instrument of data collection here; you will be collecting your data by observing, doing and interviewing. Unlike experimental research that relies on tests and questionnaires, as a qualitative researcher, you rely on several tools that you have carried around with you all your life: your mind and your senses. In conducting participant observation, you take these innate resources and use them in a systematic and disciplined way to collect data.

In this kind of deep immersion, you can:

  • Observe and participate in the daily routines, rituals and practices of a congregation or group.
  • Listen to what is being said in a service or program.
  • Become familiar with the people involved in the group. Talk not only to the main clergy person, but also to other staff and members.
  • Ask seemingly self-evident but insightful questions about what was seen and heard.
  • You can take photographs, make diagrams and perhaps collect informant-produced maps or diagrams.
  • It can be helpful to bring a small notebook to a setting and jot down notes as inconspicuously as possible.

One important item to note: make sure you write down your field notes, that is a detailed description of what happened in the setting, as soon as you can after leaving the setting. It is best to have these memories as fresh as possible for accuracy. See the following section for what these notes should contain.

Nalika Gajaweera was a senior research analyst with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture through 2023.

Andrew Johnson is a contributing fellow with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.