Essays On Participant Observation

Assess the strengths of Participant Observation in Social Research (16)

The main strength of using Participant Observation is that it usually yields extremely valid data compared to most, if not all, other research methods. There are numerous reasons for this. Firstly, PO involves the researcher participating in the day to day lives of the respondents, and it typically takes place over extended periods of time – sometimes over months or even years. This is also the only method where the researcher gets to observe people in their natural environment – seeing what people do rather than what they say they do.

An extended period of close contact allows the researcher to get in-depth data of a qualitative nature and he should be able to ‘walk in the shoes’ of the respondents – seeing the world through their eyes, gaining an empathetic understanding of how they see their world and how they interpret their own actions.

PO is also respondent–led (at least in the early, passive stages of the research) – rather than having a structure imposed on the research process from the beginning as is the case with more quantitative research using pre-written questionnaires. This means that the research is flexible – and this can sometimes yield unexpected findings – as when Venkatesh discovered that the crack gangs he researched were embedded in to the wider community and actually provided financial support for many in that community.

There is disagreement over whether covert or overt participant observation will yield more valid data – It may seem initially that respondents should act more naturally with covert research because they do not know a researcher is present so they should ‘be themselves’ but some Sociologists have suggested that participants may be more honest with a ‘professional stranger’ ( someone who is not actually part of the group) because they may not want to admit certain things to someone who they believe to be part of the group (as would be the case with covert research). Also with covert research the respondents may still be wary of a new member – or even exaggerate their behaviour to impress them – as could have been the case with Macintyre’s research into football hooligans.

Most sociologists argue that PO has very poor reliability because it is extremely difficult to repeat research done using this method due to the personal relationships struck up between researcher and respondents and also due to the time it takes to do this type of research. Reliability is especially poor with covert research as with overt one can at least use other methods or invite someone else along to verify one’s findings. With both methods, one is reliant upon the integrity of the researcher.

Representativeness is generally poor but intepretivists argue that it is worth losing this, along with reliability for the greater insight one gains using this most in depth method.

Practical concerns – this method is very time-consuming given the small amount of respondents covered. The research itself can last for many months or years, it can take several months to gain access to the respondents and even longer to analyse the reams of qualitative data one would collect during the research process. Sociologists would also find it difficult to gain funding. Covert research is especially problematic in terms of being able to gain access and not being able to record data as you go. Having said this one big practical advantage is that covert research may be the only practical way of gaining access to deviant and criminal groups.

Finally, turning to ethics PO is a potential ethical minefield – The close contact between researcher and research means there is considerable scope for harm to come to the respondents, and anonymity is impossible. Covert research is especially problematic because of the deceit involved and the fact that the researcher may get involved in illegal activities if involved in certain groups. HOWEVER… the information gleaned about illegal and immoral activities may outweigh the ethical problems of deceit etc. Interpretivists also argue that this is one of the few methods where respondents are treated as equals with the research and really get to speak for themselves.

In conclusion… the usefulness of any method depends on a range of different factors. If you are Positivist, you would reject the method because it is unscented, it lacks objectivity, and it is impossible to achieve the large samples necessary to find correlations and make generalisations. If however, you are more of an Interpretivist and you are concerned with validity and gaining an empathetic understanding, then Pobs is the ideal method to use. However, research must take place in the real world, and so practical as well as the ethical factors mentioned mean that this method may not always be possible, even if, for some Sociologists, it is the most useful.

Mark Scheme for Participant Observation Essay 

(adapted from the AQA’s mark scheme for the same essay, AS sociology paper). The above essay should get into the top mark band!

13-16Sound, conceptually detailed knowledge of a range of relevant material on some of the problems of using participant observation (PO). Good understanding of the question and of the presented material.

Appropriate material applied accurately to the issues raised by the question.

There will be some reasonable evaluation or analysis

10-12Broad or deep, accurate but incomplete knowledge of a range of problems of PO. Understands a number of significant aspects of the question; reasonable understanding of the presented material.

Application of material is largely explicitly relevant to the question, though some material may be inadequately focused.

There will be some limited evaluation or analysis, eg of reasons for loss of objectivity in PO.

7-9Largely accurate knowledge but limited range and depth, eg a basic account of a few practical problems of using PO. Understands some aspects of the question; superficial understanding of the presented material.

Applying listed material from the general topic area but with limited regard for its relevance to the issues raised by the question, or applying a narrow range of more relevant material.

Answers are unlikely to have any evaluation but may have some limited analysis within a largely descriptive account.

4-6Limited undeveloped knowledge, eg two to three insubstantial points about some features of PO. Understands only very limited aspects of the question; simplistic understanding of the presented material.

Limited application of suitable material, and/or material often at a tangent to the demands of the question, eg drifting into advantages of using PO.

Very limited or no evaluation. Attempts at analysis, if any, are thin and disjointed

1-3Very limited knowledge, eg one to two very insubstantial points about PO or about methods in general. Very little/no understanding of the question and of the presented material.

Significant errors, omissions, and/or incoherence in application of material.

No analysis or evaluation.

Related Posts 

Participant Observation in Social Research



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A level Sociology. Keep getting a C when resubmitting to my teacher. Please mark, grade and help me improve my work.

Evaluate the problems of using observation in sociological research

Participant observation is used in sociological research to express the views of anti-positivists who use it to understand the activity of others by getting involved in research. They use it as a research method because they are micro theorists who look at small groups to achieve versthen. This is when you understand why someone behaves a certain way which is useful for sociological research. They do this by using qualitive data to understand groups and present in depth information to develop new theories. This includes using the bottom up approach which is when small amounts of people develop systems to benefit society.
There is participant and non-participant observation where the researcher either takes part in the group or doesn’t as well as overt and covert research where the researcher either tells the group about the research or doesn’t. The theory is that people may act differently depending on what observation method is used which is the Hawthorn effect. An example of a theory used is interactionism which uses PO because they want to see the world through other people’s eyes. It has a front stage, back stage approach when addressing people. This is impression management where actions are visible to the audience and are part of the performance however, people can only engage in backstage behaviour when there is no audience present.
One example of covert and participant research is Laud Humphreys (1970). The Tea Room Trade was the study of gay men having sex in public places, in the USA. He acted as a look out for the men because homosexuality was illegal at that time. The research remained covert until he tracked them down by their car registration plates. He appeared at their houses asking for information in exchange for keeping their homosexual lives a secret because 50% of the men had oblivious wives at home. He researched the ethical activity of the group which proved that people associated the trade with stereotypes amongst the men. It also caused a major debate on privacy for research participants and is now used as an example. His research could be modified and a contemporary version could be compared to the original for interesting results that show development as people’s view on the gay community may have changed.
Another example of covert and participant observation was carried out by Amy Flowers (1998¬).She began her study as a sex phone worker and acknowledges the way in which women learned to mask their feelings and emotions when liaising with clients. Neither employees nor managers knew about her study. She gained experience by empathising with the clients which is considered an important part of research by Max Webter. It should be remembered that by doing this she received an honest response similar to Humphries research although, she didn’t invade the group’s privacy which meant that she received less criticism as a result.

Howard Parker is one example of a problem with participant observation and how it isn’t always effective. His study of young males in Liverpool discovered that they stole car radios, fought heavily and used drugs. He became so involved that he actually assisted them in crime by keeping watch as they committed felonies. Although his study got out of hand, it raised ideas about moral issues to sociologists and supported the criminals as they realised their behaviour was wrong.

On the other hand, Stephen Lang studied overt observation of high risk groups. His honest study of dangerous activities helped him understand the group without invading privacy. Lang’s use of participant observation helped him gain experience which will help him develop theories and ideas. The respondents are oblivious and therefore will be more honest with you which results in more useful information. You can develop trust and again access to areas where you couldn’t if you participated. On the other hand, disadvantages of PO are that the researcher may become bias towards the group which could influence their research. They can get too attached to the subject or the subject could be at risk, meaning they’d have to stop observing the group. A downfall is that the research they find is too specific and only applies to small groups meaning they can’t generalise results.
An example of overt and participant research can be shown from Stephen Lying (1998) who studied high risk groups. This included skydivers who he researched to discover why they did it. He never hid the fact that he was completing his study; however, he participated in the activities and joined in with the group. This way, the group were more honest with him. It also meant he could possibly follow on the research with other methods such as questionnaires and interviews to see why they behave this way. He really wanted to understand why someone thrives so badly from an adrenaline rush and the only way to do this was to experience it himself whilst asking others their feelings towards it.
Alternatively, the advantage of non PO is that it is safer for the researcher because they cannot be harmed by the group if something goes wrong. They merely observe their actions but may always be considered an outsider which won’t provide the most efficient results. The results may vary because the activity of the group can alter providing they know they’re being watched. This is the Hawthorne effect. An example of this is when teachers are watched to see how they educate children. They may use props and visual aids that they usually wouldn’t in lesson to appear more professional to the researcher which isn’t an accurate representation.
Covert methods are beneficial because they can present the normal activity of people. However, overt methods may have the Hawthorne effect due to the appearance of the researcher. For example, if the researcher is dressed as a nun you’re more likely to give an answer that isn’t truthful and won’t offend their religious beliefs. Whereas, overt methods minimises the chances of this happening and will lead to other efficient methods of research for observation, such as questionnaires and interviews to understand why the group behaved this way.
One way covert and total participant research was carried out was by James Patrick (1973). He studied and participated for four months in a Glasgow gang. This meant that he could research into difficult areas and use normal behaviour as well as the forbidden fruit to understand the group. Despite this, he could’ve posed himself as a threat due to exposure and there would be ethical dilemmas. In addition to this, his total participation meant that he has similar social characteristics to the group and therefore he was more believable which made him easier to confine in. He came to the summary that the group were afraid of fighting other gangs but more afraid of not fighting at all.
In conclusion, observation as a sociological research method benefits the researcher because it helps them to discover useful information about the group. However, it can sometimes be very challenging and difficult to observe the group depending on the method you use. It is therefore best if you evaluate how you will carry out your research before beginning the observation in order to achieve the most efficient results.

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