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Participant Observation in Social Research

Participant Observation is where the researcher joins in with the group being studied and observes their behaviour. This post covers the theoretical, practical and ethical strengths and limitations of using overt and covert participant observation in social research.

participant-observationParticipant observation is closely related to the ethnographic method (or ‘ethnography’), which consists of an in-depth study of the way of life of a group of people.

Ethnography is traditionally associated with anthropology, wherein the anthropologist visits a (usually) foreign land, gains access to a group (for example a tribe or village), and spends several years living with them with the aim of uncovering their culture. The ethnographic method involves watching what participants do, listening to them, engaging in probing conversations, and joining them in day to day tasks as necessary; it also involves investigating any cultural artefacts such as art work and any written work if it exists, as well as analysing what religious rituals and popular stories can tell us about the culture. Ethnographic research has traditionally involved taking copious field notes, and the resulting ‘monographs’ which are produced can take several months, if not a year or more to write up.

To cut a long winded definition short, ethnography is basically the same as participant observation, but includes the writing up of a detailed account of one’s findings:

Ethnography = participant observation + a detailed written account of one’s findings.

Participant Observation and the use of other methods

Most participant observers (or ‘ethnographers’) will combine their observations with other methods – most obviously unstructured interviews, and some will combine them with more formal questionnaire based research, normally towards the end of their study period, meaning many of these studies are actually mixed-methods studies. Nonetheless, Participant Observation is still technically classified, for the purposes of A-level sociology as a ‘qualitative’ method.

Overt and Covert Observation

An important distinction in Participation/ Ethnography is between covert and over observation.

  • Overt Observation – this is where the group being studied know they are being observed.
  • Covert Observation – this where the group being studied does not know they are being observed, or where the research goes ‘undercover’.

These both have their strengths and limitations – overt research is obviously more ethical because of the lack of deception, and it allows the researcher to ask probing questions and use other research methods. Covert research may be the only way to gain access to deviant groups, it may enable you to gain fuller ‘immersion’ into the host culture and avoids the ‘Hawthorne Effect’. However, ethically it involves deception and can be very stressful for the researcher.

The Strengths of Participant Observation

Theoretical Advantages

The most significant strength of both types of participant observation is the high degree of validity the method achieves. There are at least five reasons for this:

participant observation anthropologyYou can observe what people do, not what they say they do – In contrast to most other methods, participant observation allows the researcher to see what people do rather than what people say they do.

 

Participant Observation takes place in natural settings – this should mean respondents act more naturally than in a laboratory, or during a more formal interview. This should mean the Hawthorne effect will be less, especially with covert research. You also get more of a feel for respondents’ actions in context, which might otherwise seem out of place if in an artificial research environment.

Digging deep and gaining insight – the length of time ethnographers spend with a community means that close bonds that can be established, thus enabling the researcher to dig deeper than with other methods and find out things which may be hidden to all other means of enquiry.

Verstehen/empathetic understanding– participant observation allows the researcher to fully join the group and to see things through the eyes (and actions) of the people in group. Joining in allows the researcher to gain empathy through personal experiences. This closeness to people’s reality means that participant observation can give uniquely personal, authentic data.

Flexibility and generating new ideas – when completing questionnaires researchers begin with pre-set questions. Even before starting to collect the data, therefore, the researchers have decided what’s important. The problem with this is what if the questions the researcher thinks are important are not the same as the ones the subject thinks are important. By contrast, participant observation is much more flexible. It allows the researcher to enter the situation with an open mind and as new situations are encountered they can be followed up.

Practical Advantages

There are few practical advantages with this method, but participant observation might be the only methods for gaining access to certain groups. For example, a researcher using questionnaires to research street gangs is likely to be seen as an authority figure and unlikely to be accepted.

Ethical Advantages

Interpretivists prefer this method because it is respondent led – it allows respondents to speak for themselves and thus avoids a master-client relationship which you get with more quantitative methods.

The Limitations of Participant Observation

Theoretical Disadvantages

One theoretical disadvantage is the low degree of reliability. It would be almost impossible for another researcher to repeat given that a participant observation study relies on the personal skills and characteristics of the lone researcher.

Another theoretical disadvantage is the low degree of representativeness. Sociologists who use quantitative research methods study large, carefully selected, representative samples that provide a sound basis for making generalisations, In contrast, the groups used in participant observation studies are usually unrepresentative, because they are accessed through snowball sampling and thus haphazardly selected.

Critics also question how valid participant observation really is. They argue the method lacks objectivity. It can be very difficult for the researcher to avoid subjectivity and forming biased views of the group being studied. Also researchers decide what is significant and worth recording and what’s not, therefore, it depends on the values of the researcher. In extreme cases, researchers might ‘go native’, where they become sympathatic with the respondents and omit any negative analysis of their way of life.

A further threat to validity is the Hawthorne Effect, where people act differently because they know they are being observed, although participant observers would counter this by saying that people can’t keep up an act over long time periods: they will eventually relax and be themselves.

Also, the methods lack a concept of social structures such as class, gender or ethnicity. By focussing on the participants own interpretation of events, the researcher tends to ignore the wider social structures, which means giving only a partial explanation.

Practical Disadvantages

Firstly, this method tends to be time consuming and expensive in relation to the relatively small amount of respondents. It can take time to gain trust and build rapport, and so for this reason, it may take several days, weeks or even months, before the respondents really start to relax in the presence of the researcher.

Participant Observation also requires observational and interpersonal skills that not everyone possesses – you have to be able to get on with people and understand when to take a back seat and when to probe for information.

Gaining access can also be a problem – many people will not want to be researched this way, and where covert research is concerned, researchers are limited by their own characteristics. Not everyone can pass as a Hells Angel if covert observation is being used!

Ethical Disadvantages

Ethical problems are mainly limited to Covert Participant Observation, in which respondents are deceived and thus cannot give informed consent to participate in the research.

Legality can also be an issue in covert research where researchers working with deviant groups may have to do illegal acts to maintain their cover.

Some advantages of Overt compared to Covert Observation

Students often think that Covert Observation is superior to Over Observation, however there are five reasons why Overt might be a better choice of research method:

1. You can ask awkward, probing questions

2. You can combine it with other methods

3. You can take on the role of the ‘professional stranger’ – respondents might tell you things because they know you are not ‘one of them’

4. It is less stressful and risky for the researcher

5. It is easier to do follow up studies.

Related Posts

Learning to Labour by Paul Willis – A Summary

https://revisesociology.com/2016/01/25/learning-to-labour-by-paul-willis-summary-and-evaluation-of-research-methods/

 

Sources:

Bryman (2016) Social Research Methods

Chapman et al (2016) Sociology AQA A-level Year 1 and AS Student Book

 

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Sociological Theories of Crime and Deviance – A Very Brief Overview

A brief summary table covering structural and action, consensus and conflict, and modern and post-modern perspectives on crime and deviance. Not sure how well it will cut and paste mind!

Students will obviously need to know more than this, but it’s still important to review the basics from time to time to check your understanding and how all the bits fit together!

Theory

Key Name

Key concepts

Criticism

  1. Functionalism

Durkheim (1895)

  • Social Integration

  • Social Regulation

  • Social chance

C.

Assumes the laws are created through value consensus.

  1. Bonds of Attachment

Hirschi

  • Bonds of attachment

  • Commitment, attachment, involvement, belief

C.

Lack of attachment does not automatically lead to people becoming criminals. There are also ‘pull factors’ such as peer group pressure.

  1. Strain Theory

Merton (1938)

  • There is a strain between the success goals and the legitimate means to achieve those success goals

C.

Exaggerates working class crime – Ignored non-utilitarian crime.

  1. Subcultural Theory –

Albert Cohen (1955)

  • Lack of success leads to Status Frustration

  • Leads to a a Delinquent subculture

  • Deviance is collective not individual response

C.

Willis’ research criticises this – status frustration does not lead to a subculture – boys form a subculture because they think school is irrelevant to their future lives

  1. Subcultural Theory “Delinquency and opportunity”

Cloward & Ohlin (1962)

  • – Illegitimate opportunity structure Criminal, conflict and retreatist subcultures ……

C. TW + Y say this theory still assumes people are committed to achieving wealth. Some, e.g. hippies, aren’t.

  1. New Right / underclass theory

Charles Murray (1989)

  • Long term unemployed, live off benefits

  • High numbers of lone parents.

  • High rates of crime

C.

Marxists would argue that Long term unemployment is a structural failing of the Capitalist system

  1. Interactionism – Labelling Theory

Becker (1963)

  • Agents of Social Control stereotype and marginalise minority groups

C. Blaming authorities absolves criminals of responsibility

  1. Interactionist – Labelling Theory

Becker (1963)

Labelling can lead to crime –

  • Master Status

  • Self fulfilling prophecy

  • Deviant career

  • Deviant subculture

C.

  • Too deterministic

  • Why are some people more likely to be labelled than others?

  1. Trad Marxism

Gordon

  • Capitalism Competition Dog eat Dog society;

  • Prison for W/C neutralises opposition vs system

C.

Crime was still present in communist societies.

  1. Trad Marxism

Chambliss

  • All classes commit crime

  • Inequality in capitalist system is linked to crime

C.

Crime in the UK has been decreasing while inequality has been increasing

  1. Trad Marxism

Snider

Many of the most serious deviant acts are “corporate crime” (M/C)

C.

Left Realists argue that Marxist focus too much on corp. crime; burglaries cause more distress and victims = W/C

  1. Neo Marxism – The New Criminology

Taylor, Walton and Young (1973)

  • Fully Social Theory of Deviance.

  • Criminals are ‘political heroes’

C.

  • LR’s say W/C criminals are romanticised

  • LR’s say victims neglected

  • Fems say that focus is only male crime.

  1. Realism in general

Taylor Walton and Young (LR) and Wilson (RR)

  • We should abandon the grand narratives of previous theories and focus on practical solutions to crime

c.

Marxists argue these are ignoring the root cause of crime

  1. Left Realism

Lea + Young

  • 3 causes of crime – relative deprivation/ subculture and marginalisation

C. Marxists argue these are ignoring the root cause of crime

  1. Left Realism

Lea and Young

  • Solutions to crime include Reducing inequality and more community policing

C. Community policing is really about the state controlling people’s lives.

  1. Right Realism

James Q Wilson

  • Cost/benefit cause of crime

  • Broken windows/

C.

Jones (92) says that lack of investment is more important than Z.T. in preventing crime.

  1. Right Realism

James Q Wilson

  • Solutions to crime include target hardening and situational crime prevention

C.

Crime displacement

  1. Postmodernism

Robert Reiner

  • Increase in consumerism is a fundamental reason behind increasing crime

Can’t explain decrease in crime since the mid-1990s

  1. Late Modernism

Jock Young

  • The vertigo of Late Modernity- Crime today is linked to anomie/ crisis of masculinity

C. Is this any different to Strain Theory?

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Giddens – Modernity and Self-Identity

A brief summary of Anthony Giddens’ work on the relationship between the self and society in late-modern age.

Self-identity, history, modernity.

Drawing on a therapeutic text – ‘Self-Therapy’ by Janette Rainwater – Giddens selects ten features which are distinctive about the search for self-identity in the late modern age:

  1. The self is seen as a reflexive project for which the individual is responsible. Self-understanding is relegated to the more inclusive and fundamental aim of rebuilding a more rewarding sense of identity.

  2. The self forms a trajectory of development from the the past to the anticipated future. The lifespan rather than external events is in the foreground, the later are cast as either fortuitous or throwing up barriers which need to be overcome.

  3. Reflexivity becomes continuous – the individual continuously asks the question ‘what am I doing in this moment, and what can I do to change?’ In this, reflexivity belongs to the reflexive historicity of modernity.

  4. The narrative of the self is made explicit – in the keeping of an autobiography – which requires continual creative input.

  5. Self-actualisation implies the control of time – essentially, the establishing of zones of time which have only remote connections with external temporal orders. Holding a dialogue with time is the very basis of self-realisation, and using the ever-present moment to direct one’s future life course is essential.

  6. The reflexivity of the self extends to the body. Awareness of the body is central to the grasping of the moment. The point here is to establish a differentiated self, not to dissolve the ego.

  7. Self-actualisation is understood as a balance between opportunity and risk. The individual has to be prepared to take on greater levels of risk than is normal – to change is to risk things getting worse.

  8. The moral thread of self-actualisation is one of authenticity… Personal growth depends on conquering emotional blocks and tensions that prevent us from understanding ourselves – recover or repeat old habits is the mantra.

  9. The life course is seen as a series of ‘passages’. All such transitions involve loss.

  10. The line of development of the self is internally referential – it is the creation of a personal belief system by which someone changes – one’s first loyalty is to oneself.

    Giddens now asks how can we connect up these ten features of self-identity to the institutional transformations characteristic of the late-modern world?

Lifestyle and Life Plans

Therapy (and it’s focus on self-identity reconstruction) is a response to the backdrop to the existential terrain of late modern life which consists of the following features:

  • it is reflexively organised

  • it is permeated by abstract systems (money/ time)

  • the reordering of time and space has realigned the global and the local.

This has resulted in the following societal level changes 

  1. We live in a post-traditional order, the signposts offered by tradition are now blank

  2. We have a pluralisation of lifeworlds – the milieu which we are exposed to are much more diverse.

  3. Experts do not agree, so there is no longer a certain source of knowledge.

  4. The prevalence of mediated experiences – the collage effect of the media – we have new communities and shed loads of new possibilities.

All of this has results in the primacy of lifestyle (and thus lifestyle planning and therapy)

A lifestyle may be defined as a more or less integrated set of practices which an individual embraces because they give material form to a particular narrative of self-identity. A lifestyle implies a plurality of choices – it is something which is adopted rather than handed down (and should not merely be conflated with consumerism in this instance).

(NB Giddens also says that we do not all have complete freedom of choice over our lifestyles – we are restricted by work, and by class etc… and moreover, the lifestyle pattern we choose limits what we can do if we wish to maintain an authentic narrative of the self.

Life planning becomes essential in the above social context – life planning is an attempt to ‘colonise the future’.in conditions of social uncertainty – which is precisely what modern institutions do at the societal level.

Thus life-planning and therapy kind of ‘mirror’ a broader (globalised) social context which is itself reflexive.

Two things in particular become central to ‘life planning’– (1) The Pure Relationship comes to be crucial to the reflexive project of the self and (2) the body becomes subject of ever greater levels of personal control, which I’ll cover in the next blog post or two.

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Sensationalisation of Crime in the Media

The selection of dramas below is a good illustration of just how much the media sensationalises crime –

Media and Crime

Crime drama seems to make up huge percentage of the BBC’s output – and all of the recent dramas above focus on the most horrific crimes – kidnapping and murder seem to be the most popular. Many of these dramas also have multiple victims – Happy Valley had about five – in one quiet region of Northern England, in the space of the few weeks the series was set over.

Just a quick post as I wanted something in place to introduce media and crime when we do the topic early next Academic year.

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Functionalist, Marxist and New Right Perspectives on Education

A brief video I put together to help revise the Functionalist, Marxist and New Right Perspectives on Education – basically just some key points and evaluations for each of these sociological theories.

Functionalism – Social solidarity, skills for work, bridge between home and society, role allocation and meritocracy

Marxism – The reproduction and legitimation of class inequality and the correspondence principle

The New Right – Marketisation, league tables, the National Curriculum and New Vocationalism

The slide show goes through each perspective three times – each repeat has less information. The idea is that you can test yourself as you go….. It’s deliberately designed to be ‘no frills’ btw!

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AS Sociology Exam Advice (AQA)

A brief podcast I put together which provides an overview of the two AS Sociology exams (AQA syllabus)

 

 

Final Assessment of AS Sociology – 2 Exam Papers

Paper 7191 (1) 90 minutes, 60 marks

Education and Methods in Context

Paper 7191 (2) – 90 minutes, 60 marks

Research Methods and Families and Households

Paper 7191 (1) 90 minutes, 60 marks

Education and Methods in Context

Paper 7191 (2) – 90 minutes, 60 marks

Research Methods and Families and Households

Education (5 questions)

Define the term…

(3 min) (2 marks)

Using one example, briefly explain…

(3 min) (2 marks)

Outline three ways…

(9 min) (6 marks)

Outline and explain two…

(15 min) (10 marks)

Applying material from Item A and elsewhere, evaluate…

(30 mins) (20 marks)

Methods Applied to Education (1 question)

Applying material from Item B and your knowledge of research methods, evaluate the strengths and limitations of using xxx method to research xxx issue in education

(30 min) (20 marks)

Research methods (2 questions)

(Q01) Outline two….

(6 mins) (4 marks)

(Q02) Evaluate… Something about research methods

(24 mins) (16 marks)

Families (5 questions)

(Q08) Define the term…

(3 mins) (2 marks)

(Q09) Using one example, briefly explain…

(3 mins) (2 marks)

(Q10) Outline three…

(9 mins) (6 marks)

(Q11) Outline and explain two….

(15 mins ) (10 marks)

(Q12) Applying material from Item A and your knowledge, evaluate…

(30 mins) (20 marks)

Relevant Links 

The AQA Sociology Hub Site

Specimen Sociology exam papers and mark schemes from the AQA

If you like this sort of thing then you might like to purchase my extensive no-nonsense revision notes – over 50 pages of accessible, user friendly, exam-focused notes for only £0.99* – from iTunes, Barnes and Noble and Kobo.

Research Methods Coverv3
Purchase on iTunes for only £0.99*

*Price will fluctuate with the dollar exchange rate

 

Further Revision Notes to Follow

 

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How Many Likes Does it Take?

I just typed in ‘how many likes does it take to be satisfied’ into Google and got the responses below (second picture) – although just as interesting are the auto-complete options which cropped up.

how many likes

likes

I guess we live in a virtual world where many more people are asking themselves how to get more likes, without asking themselves whether this will make them satisfied or not?

I KNOW there are plenty more ways you can phrase the question, and of course the above responses may be difference because of my own search history (although whey the Ask Men link came up is beyond me), but intuitively this seems to be an obvious limit to reflexivity in an an online age – asking how to get more likes is more common than reflecting on whether this is a worthy goal in the first place.

For some reasons I’m reminded of Habermas’ theory of communicative action – and those three basic types of question we can ask of each other (and ourselves) – (1) Is something effective, (2) is something true (i.e. what does it actually mean) and (3) is something good. When it comes to the economy of likes, I guess most people are stuck in that pragmatic domain. When it comes to likes – how many people stop to reflect on what a ‘like’ actually means, and whether seeking more of them is a worthwhile act in itself, and how (more?) many people have just unconsciously based part of their self-esteem on gathering likes and limit themselves to the pragmatic question of how to get more of them?

Now there’s a research agenda to stick in your pipe and smoke!

And of course I do appreciate the irony of the media here.

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Sociological Perspectives on Romance, Love and Modern Relationships

If a couple were to discuss honestly how a modern ‘pure relationship’ is likely to pan out then the conversation might go something like this….

Covers concepts such as reflexivity, the pure relationship and confluent love.