Handling the Hawthorne effect: The challenges surrounding a participant observer

David Oswald, Fred Sherratt, Simon Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Participant observation can be an excellent way to gather qualitative data and observe real behaviours, provided the participant observer does not cause a behavioural change from the norm. Such a change in behaviour is known as the Hawthorne effect – where people modify their behaviour when they know they are being watched or studied. The Hawthorne effect is one of the greatest challenges research observers face when gathering data and has long been described as the ‘Achilles heel’ of participant research (Coombs and Smith, 2003). This challenge is discussed based on experiences from gathering data on behavioural safety and attitudes on a very large civil engineering construction project currently underway in the UK. The proposed six-stage protocol helped the participant observer witness real behaviours and true attitudes of the workforce while limiting the potential negative consequences of the Hawthorne effect. A case study example using this protocol suggests that it is important that the researcher becomes successfully immersed in the social setting by gaining trust and making the workers feel relaxed and unthreatened. The paper also discusses other challenges associated with an ethnographic approach including validity, bias, interpreting evidence and analysing the data collected.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)53-73
Number of pages20
JournalReview of Social Studies
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2014


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