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Participant Observation

Participant Observation is a method of data collection that takes advantage of the human ability to empathise. Unlike other research methods participant observation allows the sociologist to look at people in their natural environment. Participant observation is often associated with qualitative research, although the use of observation is not confined to researchers advocating any particular methodological approach. Sociologists such as Ned Polsky and Nigel Fielding have used participant observation to research different topics. This essay will explore the usefulness of the use of participant observation in sociological research, and its drawbacks.

One of the most important decisions that participant observers have to make is how to approach the social group they wish to join. They can either choose to be covert or an overt participant observer. A covert participant observer will declare their true identity and purpose whereas an overt participant observer will keep this hidden. Whilst some researchers choose to only be partially open, others strongly advocate being open from the start and argue that it is both morally and practically the best way to carry out participant observation. Ned Polsky suggests that it is morally correct to be truthful and that the research can easily be ruined if the covert participant observer is uncovered. However, leading overt research can sometimes have its drawbacks as the group may behave artificially so as to present themselves in a better light to the observer.

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Nigel Fielding [1993] argues that he would not have been able to conduct his study of the National Front without conducting covert research, due to the members’ hostility towards sociology. Similarly, Patrick 1973 had to keep his name secret as he feared for his personal safety when studying violent Glasgow gangs, as did William Chambliss [1978] whilst studying organised crime in Seattle. The element of choice is a useful part of participant observation in sociological research, as researchers can choose to be truthful or not depending on the situation they are studying. For some types of research, there may be no good alternative to participant observation. Certain unusual groups or behaviour would not be possible to study using any other method.

The research does not artificially interfere with people’s lives and they are free to act as normal. This allows the researcher to gain an insight, which surveys cannot produce. Supporters of this research method argue that compared to other research techniques, it is least likely to lead to sociologists imposing their reality o the social world they seek to understand, therefore providing the best means of obtaining a valid picture of social reality. With pre-set questions, for example, sociologists have already imposed their framework and priorities on those they wish to study and made assumptions about their social world. Although participant-observers start work with some preconceived ideas, they have the opportunity directly to observe the social world. This was clear from Whyte’s [1955] observations, ‘as I sat and listened, I learned the answers to questions I would not have had the sense to ask if I had been getting my information solely on an interviewing basis’.

Without exposing himself to the lives of the Italian Americans, Whyte would have remained ignorant of many of their priorities, and therefore prevent him from asking important and relevant questions. However, Nigel Fielding argues that in collecting data, ‘one must maintain a certain detachment in order to take that data and interpret it ‘. This is useful in sociological research in order for sociologists to gain a true insight into the minds of the people they have chosen to study without judgement. Participant observations however also have disadvantages to its ‘usefulness.’ The problem is representativeness. It is not possible to generalise as the research carried out as it only gives information about a small group of people, any conclusions can only apply to the specific group studied. Winlow [2001] may not have been justified in making claims about crime in cities other than Sunderland.

Lack of reliability is also a drawback, the research depends on interpretation and the research carried out does not remain objective, the researcher may get too involved and lose sight of the initial purpose of the research; the term ‘going native.’ A particular problem for overt observation, and sometimes covert, is that the observer’s presence may change the behaviour of the group; called the ‘Hawthorne effect’. These are drawbacks of participant observation, which may not be so useful when used in sociological research.mThis particular research method is often very time-consuming. Cicourel [1976] spent four years studying juvenile justice in California, similarly, Beverley Skeggs [1997] spent a total of twelve years conducting ethnographic research following the lives of women who had been on a caring course at a further education college in England. When time is of the essence, participant observation would obviously not be appropriate for sociological research and other methods may be better suited.

Furthermore, such studies cannot be replicated, so the results cannot be checked. It is therefore difficult to compare the results with the findings of other studies. The data from participant observation relies upon the particular interpretations of a single individual, and are specific to a particular place and time. Whyte [1955] admits ‘to some extent my approach must be unique to myself, to the particular situation, and to the state of knowledge existing when I began to research ‘. Cicourel also admits that his participant observation study relied heavily upon his own observational and interpretive skills. Positivists may criticise participant observation also on the grounds that it cannot be replicated, and it being too unscientific. Being unable to replicate a study can have some serious drawbacks in sociological research as the results cannot be checked, and are therefore less likely to be believed as results gained from other studies can be replicated.

In conclusion, participant observation has shown to be a useful form of sociological research, as it can be used to gain a first-hand view into various issues. Sociologists have the opportunity to look at situations without imposing their own assumptions on them to produce true data. However, the drawbacks are not to be taken lightly. The lack of reliability and representativeness does not encourage others to take the research seriously, as does the problem of not being able to replicate the study. Participant observation therefore would possibly need to be backed up with quantitative information from secondary data such as official statistics to make generalisations and identify trends and patterns to reach a more objective conclusion.

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Participant Observation. (2021, Apr 14). Retrieved May 11, 2021, from