Participant Observation to Research Education

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.

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This entry was posted in education, Ethnicity, research methods, Social Action Theory (Interpretivism and Interactionism) and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Participant Observation to Research Education

  1. Pingback: Methods in Context Essay Template | ReviseSociology

  2. Pingback: Assess the claim that ‘ethnic difference in educational achievement are primarily the result of school factors’ (30) | ReviseSociology

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