Participant Observation to Research Education

Last Updated on September 10, 2020 by

Participant Observation studies are favoured by interpretivists as they allow for the collection of rich, qualitative data, and for an in-depth exploration of the thoughts and feelings of individuals involved.

If done rigorously this is the best method for gaining an empathetic understanding with respondents, where we really see the world through their eyes.

Practical issues

One of the main methods of collecting data in Participant Observation is simply ‘hanging out’ with respondents – and it’s difficult to see how an adult researcher is going to be able to ‘hang-out’ with either students or teachers today.

Both are too busy during the formal school day, and with pupils especially there is little chance an adult researcher would be given permission to just hang around with them for child protection reasons, even if pupils wanted to ‘hang-out’ with an adult for a day, week, month, term or longer, which is unlikely for most pupils

There is little chance schools or parents would grant an adult researcher access to research their children in this way, and it would be impossible to do this covertly, because if posing covertly as a teacher or an LF, you wouldn’t naturally ‘hang out’ with students.

In the late 1980s, Mac an Ghaill did conduct overt PO researchers with his students while he was employed as a teacher, focusing on how they dealt with racism, and he did ‘hang out’ with them informally, but today this would be frowned upon.  

If focusing on researching teachers a researcher is more likely to gain access to do overt Participant Observation, but they might be something of an irritation, and teachers might be on their guard about what they say ‘back stage’ if they knew a researcher was present.

A researcher could do covert PO on a school by secretly training as a teacher or an LF, but the whole process of training would take a year in the case of being a teacher.

Observations in a school are also limited by the school day, and terms, you don’t get to do research in holidays, and you probably wouldn’t be able to find out anything about the home lives of either students or teachers using this method.

Finally, if doing covert research undercover, there is the problem of recording data – if you’re employed, you have to do the job, so any recording and writing up would need to be done at the end of the working day.

Theoretical issues

Schools are complex places – they consist of numerous students and intersecting friendship groups, students attend several classes in one day, probably with several different teachers, and there are further interactions during school break times. And If researchers want a full understating of peer group interaction today, they should probably seek to investigate social media interactions, which will occur both before, during and after the formal school day. This sheer complexity means Participant Observation is a good fit research method as it stands the best chance of uncovering the depth of the reality of school life.

However, it’s unlikely that  pupils would wish to reveal their feelings to an adult person ‘hanging out with them’ – in real life, adults generally don’t ‘hang-out’ with children (except their own family), so this would hardly be a naturalistic setting where respondents would be at ease.

If doing PO research with teachers, they would be more likely to relax and act naturally over time, but might ‘impression manage’ if they new a researcher was present doing overt rather than covert research.

Ultimately the validity of data collected depends on the skills and personal characteristics of the researcher, and because these will probably have an impact on the data collected, reliability will probably be low.

In terms of representativeness, this method can only be done in one school at a time, and only with a handful of pupils or teachers, so you couldn’t claim to have data that’s representative of a whole cohort of students nationwide – if you wished to ensure representativeness you would ned to do follow up studies using more quantitative methods.

Ethical issues

Child Protection issues could be a real problem with this method – the more invasive a method, the more chance there is for harm to come to respondents.

If you are researching deviance there is also the question of what to do if you find out children are engaged in activities they shouldn’t be (like underaged drinking) – you would be morally obliged to report this, but this would breach confidentiality.

Young, Gifted and Black

A brief summary of Young, Gifted and Black (1988) by Mairtin Mac an Ghaill and a consideration of the practical, ethical and theoretical advantages and disadvantages of the method in this educational context.

In Young, Gifted and Black (1988) Mairtin Mac an Ghaill carried out two ethnographic studies in inner-city educational institutions where he worked. The first study looked at the relations between white teachers and two groups of male students with anti-school values – the Asian Warriors and the African Caribbean Rasta Heads – and the second study looked at a group of black female students, of African Caribbean and Asian parentage, called the Black Sisters.

Why study this subject?

Because of opportunity – He originally wanted to study Irish school students but no one could help him do this, so he was advised to study African Caribbean students instead. As to the Black Sisters he never intended to study them, but they found him – because he was perceived as being on the side of the students they were happy to talk to him about their views of racism.

Because Mac an Ghaill wanted to gain a close insight into the culture and values of respondents, he chose participatory methods – he became friendly with the students and they visited his home regularly… ‘The experience of talking, eating, dancing and listening to music together helped break down the potential social barriers of the teacher-researcher role that may have been assigned to me and my seeing them as students with the accompanying status perception’

At the time the dominant theories argued that black underachievement was due to subcultures of resistance – the problem was seen as being with the students themselves.

However, following his in-depth research, and his adoption of a ‘black perspective’ he realised that racism rather than the students themselves was the biggest problem in their schooling – their subcultures were a response to a racially structured institution.

Ethical Issues

Mac an Ghaill does not claim to be value free in his research – he was committed to helping students overcome their perceived racial barriers.

The research also brought him into conflict with some other members of staff, as he found himself becoming the defender of ethnic minority students against what he perceived to be a racist institution.

Practical Issues with this research

Mac an Ghaill was only able to do this research because of his position as a teacher, it would have been practically impossible otherwise.

Theoretical Issues

Reliability and Representativeness are both low.

Validity is an interesting one – given the in-depth and participatory nature of the method we might assume that we are gaining a true insight into the thoughts and feelings of the respondents. However, the research has only given us an insight into student perceptions of racism, not whether the institution was actually racist. However, even if the institution wasn’t actually racist, understanding the students perception that it was provides us with new insight into why they formed subculture.

Finally, given that Mac an Ghaill was both researcher and teacher, this may have meant some of the student respondents didn’t open up to him fully.

Please click here to return to the homepage –

2 thoughts on “Participant Observation to Research Education”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from ReviseSociology

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading