Assess the strengths of Participant Observation in Social Research (16)
The main strength of using Participant Observation is that it usually yields extremely valid data compared to most, if not all, other research methods. There are numerous reasons for this. Firstly, PO involves the researcher participating in the day to day lives of the respondents, and it typically takes place over extended periods of time – sometimes over months or even years. This is also the only method where the researcher gets to observe people in their natural environment – seeing what people do rather than what they say they do.
An extended period of close contact allows the researcher to get in-depth data of a qualitative nature and he should be able to ‘walk in the shoes’ of the respondents – seeing the world through their eyes, gaining an empathetic understanding of how they see their world and how they interpret their own actions.
PO is also respondent–led (at least in the early, passive stages of the research) – rather than having a structure imposed on the research process from the beginning as is the case with more quantitative research using pre-written questionnaires. This means that the research is flexible – and this can sometimes yield unexpected findings – as when Venkatesh discovered that the crack gangs he researched were embedded in to the wider community and actually provided financial support for many in that community.
There is disagreement over whether covert or overt participant observation will yield more valid data – It may seem initially that respondents should act more naturally with covert research because they do not know a researcher is present so they should ‘be themselves’ but some Sociologists have suggested that participants may be more honest with a ‘professional stranger’ ( someone who is not actually part of the group) because they may not want to admit certain things to someone who they believe to be part of the group (as would be the case with covert research). Also with covert research the respondents may still be wary of a new member – or even exaggerate their behaviour to impress them – as could have been the case with Macintyre’s research into football hooligans.
Most sociologists argue that PO has very poor reliability because it is extremely difficult to repeat research done using this method due to the personal relationships struck up between researcher and respondents and also due to the time it takes to do this type of research. Reliability is especially poor with covert research as with overt one can at least use other methods or invite someone else along to verify one’s findings. With both methods, one is reliant upon the integrity of the researcher.
Representativeness is generally poor but intepretivists argue that it is worth losing this, along with reliability for the greater insight one gains using this most in depth method.
Practical concerns – this method is very time-consuming given the small amount of respondents covered. The research itself can last for many months or years, it can take several months to gain access to the respondents and even longer to analyse the reams of qualitative data one would collect during the research process. Sociologists would also find it difficult to gain funding. Covert research is especially problematic in terms of being able to gain access and not being able to record data as you go. Having said this one big practical advantage is that covert research may be the only practical way of gaining access to deviant and criminal groups.
Finally, turning to ethics PO is a potential ethical minefield – The close contact between researcher and research means there is considerable scope for harm to come to the respondents, and anonymity is impossible. Covert research is especially problematic because of the deceit involved and the fact that the researcher may get involved in illegal activities if involved in certain groups. HOWEVER… the information gleaned about illegal and immoral activities may outweigh the ethical problems of deceit etc. Interpretivists also argue that this is one of the few methods where respondents are treated as equals with the research and really get to speak for themselves.
In conclusion… the usefulness of any method depends on a range of different factors. If you are Positivist, you would reject the method because it is unscented, it lacks objectivity, and it is impossible to achieve the large samples necessary to find correlations and make generalisations. If however, you are more of an Interpretivist and you are concerned with validity and gaining an empathetic understanding, then Pobs is the ideal method to use. However, research must take place in the real world, and so practical as well as the ethical factors mentioned mean that this method may not always be possible, even if, for some Sociologists, it is the most useful.