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.
It has been written primarily for students studying the research methods aspect of A-level sociology.
Participant 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
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:
You 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.
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.
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
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.
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 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.
Learning to Labour by Paul Willis – A Summary
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Bryman (2016) Social Research Methods
Chapman et al (2016) Sociology AQA A-level Year 1 and AS Student Book