Participant observation is when the researcher joins in with the group he/she is studying to get a deeper insight into their lives. The researcher must go through three phases; getting in, staying in and getting out. This means that to begin the study, the researcher must first gain entry to the group. Then, once accepted, the researcher needs to be able to stay in the group to complete the study and finally, the researcher needs to be able to leave the group without any harm once the observation has been completed.
There are two types of participant observation; covert and overt. Covert is where the study is carried out ‘under cover’. The researcher’s real identity and purpose are kept concealed from the group being studied. The researcher takes a false identity and role, usually posing as a genuine member of the group. On the other hand, overt is where the researcher reveals his or her true identity and purpose to the group and asks permission to observe.
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Participant observation allows the researcher to get a true picture of what they are studying. For example, comparing observations to questionnaires; what people say they do when filling in a questionnaire, may not always be the same as what they actually do in real life. This makes interpretivists prefer the use of participant observation, as they believe it produces valid data because it gives the researcher firsthand insight into social actors meanings and behaviour. In addition, sociologists believe that the best way to truly understand what something is like is to experience it for ourselves. Therefore, sociologists use the German word ‘verstehen’, (meaning ’empathy’) to understand the meaning of putting yourself in another person’s place.
Compared to questionnaires and having pre-set questions, the researcher can start an observation with a relatively open mind about what they will find. This makes observations flexible and allows the researcher to discover things that other methods may miss. Furthermore, participant observation may sometimes be the only method for studying certain groups. For example, a teenage gang is likely to see researchers who come armed with questionnaires as the unwelcome representatives of authority.
This was pointed out by Lewis Yablonsky in 1973. Therefore, because participant observation enables the sociologist to build a relationship with the group, it has proved to be a successful method of studying ‘outsider’ groups. Police also go undercover and use participant observation, when dealing with a harder case.
Alternatively, positivists do not see participant observation as a good way of collecting data because it produces qualitative data, which cannot give you a straightforward answer. Participant observation is unlikely to produce reliable data, as each time there is a different researcher, who has their own characteristics and skills. As a result, positivists reject participant observation as an unsystematic method because it cannot be replicated by other researchers. Also, another disadvantage of using participant observation is that it is very time-consuming. For example, William Whyte’s study of ‘Street Corner Society’, took him 4 years to complete. A further disadvantage is that the researcher needs to be trained, to be able to recognise aspects of a situation that are sociologically significant and worth further attention.
For instance, if a new sociologist was the conduct participant observation, without training, then they would not know what to look out for and what aspects are serious, that will need further attention. Moreover, the researcher’s age, gender or ethnicity will be a drawback. It may restrict what kinds of groups they can study. However, in the past, some researchers have gone to great lengths to pass, to look like a member of the group. For example, John Howard Griffin was a white man in 1959, who used medication and sun lamp treatments to change his skin colour, so he could pass as being black and conducting his observation. He wanted to feel what racism was like from firsthand experience and not just to interview a black person.
Participant observation, especially covert, raises serious ethical issues. Covert includes deceiving people in order to obtain information about them, which leads to participating in illegal activities in the course of the sociological research. For example, to fit into a group, the researcher has to lie and make out they are someone they’re not, to be accepted. This is called deceiving.
Participant observation can be used in society to obtain further insight into the world of criminals and football hooligans, etc. It can also be used in education. For example, a researcher can disguise themselves as a supply teacher, to see how different years follow the instructions set. They can then produce a valid table of differences, between both years. The information would be valid, as the researcher is hiding their identity to obtain a firsthand experience and see how the children react for themselves.
Finally, sociologists have to face the decision of whether to use overt or covert observation. Overt observation allows the researcher to avoid the ethical problem of being deceitful, whereas, covert forces the researcher to hide their identity. Overt, also allows the researcher to take notes openly. This is a disadvantage for using covert research, as if the study goes on for a long period of time, you must rely on memory and the opportunity to write them in secret.
On the other hand, using covert participant observation also has disadvantages. For example, unlike covert, it creates the Hawthorne Effect, which is where the participants, who are being observed, act differently, which undermines the validity of the data. Although, pretending to be an insider rather than an outsider can still affect the validity of the study. It reduces the risk of the Hawthorne Effect, but the addition of a new member can still change the group’s behaviour, which also reduces the validity.
In conclusion, sociologists who prefer to gain a deeper insight, using firsthand experience would prefer to use covert participant observation. Whereas, sociologists who would rather keep their identity and ask whether they can observe the group, would prefer overt participant observation. Marxists and functionalists argue that because participant observation focuses on the ‘micro’ levels of actors’ meanings; it tends to ignore the wider structural forces that shape our behaviour, such as class inequality or the norms and values into which we are socialised. Therefore, seeing things only through the actors’ eyes will never give us the complete picture.
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