Using covert participant observation to investigate pupils with behavioural difficulties

Last Updated on April 28, 2017 by Karl Thompson

An example of how you might answer a methods in context question on the AQA’s A level sociology paper 1.

(05) Read item B, then answer the question below (hooks in bold)

Item B

Investigating pupils with behavioural difficulties

Some pupils experience behavioural difficulties and problems interacting with others. This can create a major obstacle to learning, for both themselves and their classmates. In some cases, they are taught in specialist schools or in pupil referral units separate from mainstream education. Often, their behavioural difficulties result from problems outside school and many pupils come from materially deprived and chaotic home backgrounds.

Some sociologists may study pupils with behavioural difficulties using covert participant observation. This method enables the researcher to witness directly the pupils’ behaviour and its context. It may also allow the researcher to build a relationship of trust with pupils and parents. However, the researcher may find it difficult to fit in and he or she may need to adopt a specialised role such as teacher or support worker.

Applying material from Item B and your knowledge of research methods, evaluate the strengths and limitations of using covert participant observation to investigate pupils with behavioural difficulties.

 Section 1 – – Deal with The Method (and hit the middle mark band, 9-12) – If possible, link to education general or even the topic using words in the item from the beginning.

  • Covert participant observation is generally preferred by interpretivists – good for insight, depth.
  • Validity is generally good, but in this case it may not be (see below)
  • Reliability and representativeness are poor
  • Practically – difficult to do, especially with closed institutions like PRUs
  • Ethically – highly problematic, especially within education, researching vulnerable students.

Section 2 – Main body – Covert PO directly applied to the specific topic of pupils with behavioural difficulties – all of these hit the top mark band descriptor (17-20)

  • Students with behavioural difficulties are vulnerable, thus gaining access would be a problem, especially with any type of PO given the close contact you would have with the students. Gatekeepers would be reluctant to let people in in order to protect students, they may also not be keen for a researcher to see how chaotic life is in such institutions. Thus Covert PO is a sensible choice because you’re more likely to get into a Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) if you pose as a professional and thus appear on ‘the side of the institution’.
  • However, covert would still be difficult to gain access, because getting into a PRU covertly would require you to be trained as a teacher or LF, they won’t just let anyone in!
  • In terms of validity, while PO is good for getting respondents to trust you, if you were covert, apparently working with the PRU, then they may not open up to you because such students wouldn’t trust authority figures, thus this major advantage is nullified.
  • Having said this, it would still allow the researcher to observe how peer groups reinforce bad behaviour in the context of the institution.
  • Ethically, there is a possibility of the researcher being put in danger, they may come across violent students and not be able to break cover easily if in a class room.
  • Practically, if you were to adopt to role of covert observer as a support worker, you would not be able to follow the students to their home backgrounds or onto ‘the street’ to see how they behaved outside of the institution where you ‘worked’, thus you wouldn’t get any insight into where they spend most of their time. Thus this method is pretty useless for this topic.
  • On a similar level, you wouldn’t be able to gain access to their homes either, to explore their ‘chaotic’ backgrounds, so you wouldn’t be able to observe this, you’d be stuck with asking them about it while in the PRU.

Section 3 – Conclusion

Overall, participant observation may well be a sensible choice of method for researching this topic, but there is nothing to be gained from doing covert compared to overt, and with covert, it probably wouldn’t happen because no one would fund it given the ethical problems surrounding researching vulnerable students, so all of this has been a rather pointless discussion.

The last sentence is optional!

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