An American Sociologist Charles Murray (1989) first coined the term ‘the underclass’ to refer to that group of people in America who were long term unemployed and effectively welfare dependent. In the late 1980s he argued that the first generation of underclass were then having children and socialising the next generation of children into a culture of worklessness, thus creating a potential problem for US society because of this group being essentially cut off from ordinary social life and are not constrained by ordinary norms and values like ordinary working people. At that time, Murray looked across to Britain and warned us that in 20 years time we would be facing a similar problem….
Low and behold, A recent article reporting on some relatively recent sociological research from The Times Newspaper (NB – Link is to the Telegraph, not behind an evil pay wall like The Times) reported that….
Two decades after the American sociologist Charles Murray warned that a big new underclass was looming, official studies and ministerial papers — which ministers have chosen not to highlight — reveal that it has finally arrived in the form of the NEETS.
Aged between 16 and 24, they number 1.1m and are responsible for a social and economic drag on society that is vastly disproportionate to their numbers. A study by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) conservatively estimates that each new Neet dropping out of education at 16 will cost taxpayers an average of £97,000 during their lifetime, with the worst costing more than £300,000 apiece.
Their impact on crime, public health and antisocial behaviour was so marked that the study found that a single 157,000-strong cohort of 16 to 18-year-old Neets would cost the country a total of £15 billion by the time they died prematurely in about 2060. They are, says the study, 22 times more likely to be teenage mothers; 50% more likely to suffer from poor health; 60% more likely to be involved with drugs and more than 20 times more likely to become criminals.
[In response to these figures Charles Murray commented…]
“When I was looking at Britain in the 1980s, the offspring of the first big generation of single mothers were small children,” said Murray, speaking from his home in America. “Now they are teenagers and young adults and the problems are exactly those that I was warning they would be — high crime rates and low participation in the labour force. These people have never been socialised and they simply don’t know how to behave, from sitting still in classrooms to knowing you don’t hit people if you have a problem. It is very difficult, almost impossible, to take these people now and provide basic conditioning. There has always been a small underclass but now you have got a major problem, who are being called the Neets.”
A Subculture is a group that has values that are different to the mainstream culture. Subcultural theorists argue that deviance is the result of whole groups breaking off from society who have deviant values (subcultures) and deviance is a result of these individuals conforming to the values and norms of the subculture to which they belong.
In contrast to Social Control theorists, it is the pull of the peer group that encourages individuals to commit crime, rather than the lack of attachment to the family or other mainstream institutions. Subcultural theory also helps explain non-utilitarian crimes such as vandalism and joy riding which strain theory cannot really explain. Deviance is a collective response to marginalisation.
There are four people you need to know about for Subcultural Theory:
1. Albert Cohen’s Status Frustration Theory
2. Cloward and Ohlin’s three types of subculture
3. Walter Miller – the focal concerns of the working class
4. Charles Murray – the underclass and Crime (links to the New Right)
Albert Cohen: Deviant Subcultures emerge because of Status Frustration
Albert Cohen argues that working class subcultures emerge because they are denied status in society. Just like Merton, Cohen argued that working class boys strove to emulate middle-class values and aspirations, but lacked the means to achieve success. This led to status frustration: a sense of personal failure and inadequacy.
Cohen argued that many boys react to this by rejecting socially acceptable values and patterns of acceptable behaviour. Because there are several boys going through the same experiences, they end up banding together and forming delinquent subcultures.
This delinquent subculture reverses the norms and values of mainstream culture, offering positive rewards (status) to those who are the most deviant. Status may be gained by being malicious, intimidating others, breaking school rules or the law and generally causing trouble.
This pattern of boys rejecting mainstream values and forming delinquent subcultures first starts in school and then becomes more serious later on, taking on the form of truancy and possibly gang membership
Subcultural Theory 2: Cloward and Ohlin’s 3 types of subculture
Cloward and Ohlin develop Cohen’s subcultural theory further, expanding on it in order to try and explain why different types of subculture emerge in different regions. They suggest that the ‘illegitimate opportunity structure’ affects what type of subculture emerges in response to status frustration – The varied social circumstances in which working-class youth live give rise to three types of delinquent subculture.
1. Criminal Subcultures are characterised by utilitarian crimes, such as theft. They develop in more stable working class areas where there is an established pattern of crime. This provided a learning opportunity and career structure for aspiring young criminals, and an alternative to the legitimate job market as a means of achieving financial rewards. Adult criminals exercise social control over the young to stop them carrying out non-utilitarian delinquent acts – such as vandalism – which might attract the attention of the police.
2. Conflict subcultures emerge in socially disorganised areas where there is a high rate of population turnover and a consequent lack of social cohesion. These prevent the formation of stable adult criminal subcultures Conflict subcultures are characterised by violence, gang warfare, ‘mugging’ and other street crime. Both approved and illegal means of achieving mainstream goals are blocked or limited, and young people express their frustration at this situation through violence or street crime, and at least obtain status through success in subcultural peer-group values. This is a possible explanation for the gang culture which is increasingly appearing in run down areas of the UK, and possibly explains the UK riots of 2011.
3. Retreatist subcultures emerge among those lower class youth who are ‘double failures’ – they have failed to succeed in both mainstream society and in the crime and gang cultures above. The response is a retreat into drug addiction and alcoholism, paid for by petty theft, shoplifting and prostitution
Alternative Perspectives to Consensus Subcultural Theories of Crime
Paul Willis’ 1977 study of the Counter-School-Culture represents a Marxist critique of consensus subcultural theory. Willis argued that the working class lads formed a subculture in order to ‘have a laff’ in a school system which they had accurately identified as being irrelevant to their futures. Unlike Cohen, these lads never aspired to be middle class, they identified themselves as working class, rejected middle class aspirations, and rejected the middle class system of the school – thus why Willis coined the term ‘counter (against) school culture’.
David Matza has developed what might cautiously be termed an Interactionist approach to understanding subcultures. Matza suggested that there were no distinct subcultures among young people. Rather, all groups in society share a set of subterranean values. These are simply deviant values that encourage us to go against social norms – the urge to party hard, drink too much, swear, stealing, punch the idiots you work with and sleep with your brother’s wife etc. These are usually held under control, but sometimes emerge at peak leisure times – weekends, holidays and so on. The difference between a persistent offender and a law-abiding citizen is simply how often and in what circumstances these subterranean values emerge.
Postmodernists point out that the nature of subcultures today has changed, in that subcultures are much more common today than they were in the 1960s. Today, subcultures are just a normal part of life. Subcultural theory assumes that there are ‘mainstream norms and values’ which subcultures deviate from. This is wrong according to Postmodernism – in society today, deviance and hence subcultures are ‘normal’, which renders the whole of subcultural theory irrelevant in helping us to understand crime and deviance.
Subcultural theories of deviance are the second group of theories of crime on the A level crime and deviance specification (AQA), normally taught after functionalist and strain theories.
Lifestyle vlogging seems like a very nice way to avoid earning a living – and a handful of popular vanilla vloggers (such as Zoella) are managing just that – simply by uploading videos of themselves consuming various items and having fun with their friends and pets.
Obviously I’d like to avoid earning a living too, but lacking the youth, beauty and sheer inanity to do so with any integrity I’ll have to settle for being interested in the rise of the vanilla vloggers from a Sociological point of view. What exactly are we to make of people who make money vlogging? Are they just insubstantial selves, or is there more to it than this?
To this end, the following passage from Giddens’ Modernity and Self Identity (page 190-191, I’ve just re-read it) seems to describe the type of self typically expressed by many of the vanilla vloggers out there….
‘In late modernity [there is a type of] self which evaporates into the variegated contexts of action, a response which Erich Fromm characterised as ‘authoritarian conformity‘. Fromm expresses this in the following way:
‘The individual ceases to be himself; he adopts entirely the kind of personality offered to him by cultural patterns; and he therefore becomes exactly as all others are and as they expect him to be….. this mechanism can be compared with the protective colouring some animals assume. They look so similar to their surroundings that they are hardly distinguishable from them’.
Having watched quite a few of these vlogs (albeit not in any systematic way – doing systematic content analysis on this content (lack of content) would drive me insane), I predominantly see what Fromm describes above – the latest fashion trends come out, they buy them, the latest restaurant or even opens, they go there, social mannerisms pertaining to masculinity change, they change the way they express their masculinity…. and so on…
At the end of the the day the depressing thing here isn’t the vanilla vloggers themselves , it’s the fact that they’ve got millions of followers, who either aspire to be like them, or worse, are currently churning out their own vanilla vlogs, failing to realise that they’re going nowhere because the market’s already saturated.
Value Freedom in Social Research refers to the ability of the researcher to keep his or her own values (personal, political and religious) from interfering with the research process.
The idea that ‘facts’ should not be influenced by the researcher’s own beliefs is a central aspect of ‘science’ – and so when we say that Sociology can and should be value free this is essentially the same as saying that ‘Sociology can and should be scientific’
Positivism and Value Freedom
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Positivist Sociologists such as August Comte and Emile Durkheim regarded Sociology as a science and thus thought that social research could and should be value free, or scientific.
As illustrated in Durkheim’s study of Suicide (1899) – by doing quantitative research and uncovering macro-level social trends Sociologists can uncover the ‘laws of society’. Durkheim believed that one such law was that too high or too low levels of social integration and regulation would lead to an increasing suicide rate. Positivists believed that further research would be able to uncover how much of what types of integration caused the suicide rate to go up or down. We should be able to find out, for example, if a higher divorce rate has more impact on the suicide rate that the unemployment rate.
So at one level, Positivists believe that Sociology can be value free because they are uncovering the ‘objective’ laws of how social systems work – these laws exist independently of the researchers observing them. All the researcher is doing is uncovering ‘social facts’ that exist ‘out there’ in the world – facts that would exist irrespective of the person doing the observing.
Positivists argued that such value-free social research was crucial because the objective knowledge that scientific sociology revealed could be used to uncover the principles of a good, ordered, integrated society, principles which governments could then apply to improve society. Thus, research should aim to be scientific or value free because otherwise it is unlikely to be taken seriously or have an impact on social policy.
Being “value free” is sometime described as being objective: to uncover truths about the world, one must aspire to eliminate personal biases, a prior beliefs, and emotional and personal involvement, etc.
Identify the TWO methods you would use to achieve a high degree of objectivity. And explain why?
Is it possible to completely objective/value free?
The ‘New Right’ – Sociology is not value free – it is left wing propaganda!
Value freedom and Sociology: ‘right wing’ perspectives..
In the 1970’s and 1980’s, Sociology came under attack for its ‘left-wing’ bias. Originally criticized for its inclusion in teacher training programmes, it was further suggested that teachers were indoctrinating their students with Marxist propaganda. David Marsland is particularly associated with the idea of Sociology as a destructive force in British society, exaggerating the defects of capitalism and ignoring its many benefits:
‘Sociology is the enemy within. It is an enemy that sows the seeds of bankruptcy and influences huge numbers of impressionable people… Sociologists are neglecting their responsibility for accurate, objective description and biasing their analyses of contemporary Britain to an enormous extent… huge numbers of people are being influenced by the biased one-sidedness of contemporary Sociology.’
In ‘Bias against Business’, Marsland suggests that many Sociology textbooks ignore the central features of capitalist economies Concentrating on job dissatisfaction and alienation:
‘Its treatment of work is consistently negative, focussing almost entirely on its pathologies – alienation, exploitation and inequality. It underestimates the high levels of job satisfaction which empirical research has consistently identified. It de-emphasises the enormous value for individual people and for society as a whole, in the way of increased standards of living and enhanced quality of life work provides. It neglects for the most part to inform students about the oppressive direction of labour of all sorts of socialist societies, or to keep them in mind of the multiple benefits of a free competitive labour market. It treats the need for economic incentives with contempt.’
Feminism – Sociology is not value free because it is biased against women
Feminists are critical of the ‘value-free’ scientific claims of ‘malestream’ Sociology, arguing that it is at best sex blind and at worst sexist, serving as an ideological justification for the subordination of women. Anne Oakley (1974) claims that ‘Sociology reduces women to a side issue from the start.’ While Sociology claims to put forward a detached and impartial view of reality, in fact it presents the perspective of men.
Feminist responses to the male bias in Sociology have been varied; on the one hand there are those who think that this bias can be corrected simply by carrying out more studies on women; a more radical view (arguing along the same lines of Becker’s ‘Whose Side are We On’) suggests that what is needed is a Sociology for women by women; that feminists should be concerned with developing a sociological knowledge which is specifically by and about women:
‘A feminist Sociology is one that is for women, not just or necessarily about women, and one that challenges and confronts the male supremacy which institutionalizes women’s inequality. The defining characteristic of feminism is the view that women’s subordination must be questioned and challenged… feminism starts from the view that women are oppressed and that their oppression is primary’. (Abbott & Wallace 1990).
Interpretivism – Sociology Cannot and Should not aim to be value free
There are three main Interpretivist Criticisms of ‘Positivist’ Sociology – from Gomm, Becker and Gouldner:
Gomm argues that ‘a value free Sociology is impossible… the very idea is unsociological’.He argues that Sociologists react to political, economic and social events – and what is seen as a political or social ‘issue’, a social ‘problem’ is dependent on the power of different groups to define and shape reality – to define what is worthy of research. Consequently, it is just as important to look at what sociologists do not investigate as what they do – Sociologists are not necessarily immune to ideological hegemony.
Gomm argues that social research always has social and moral implications. Therefore Sociology inevitably has a political nature. For the sociologists to attempt to divorce him/herself from the consequences of his/her research findings is simply an evasion of responsibility. Gomm further suggests that when the sociologist attempts to divorce himself from his own values to be scientific, to become a ‘professional sociologist’ he is merely adopting another set of values – not miraculously becoming ‘value free’ – what Positivists call value freedom often involves an unwitting-commitment to the values of the establishment.
‘The truth is, of course, not that values have actually disappeared from the social sciences, rather that the social scientist has become so identified with the going values of the establishment that it seems as if values have disappeared.’
Gouldner, along similar lines to Gomm,argues that it is impossible to be free from various forms of value judgment in the social sciences. Those who claim to be value free are merely gutless non-academics with few moral scruples who have sold out to the establishment in return for a pleasant university lifestyle.
Gouldner suggests that the principle of value freedom has dehumanised sociologists: ‘Smugly sure of itself and bereft of a sense of common humanity.’ He claims that sociologists have betrayed themselves and Sociology to gain social and academic respectability; confusing moral neutrality with moral indifference, not caring about the ways in which their research is used.
Howard Becker, in ‘Whose side are we on?’ takes this argument to its logical conclusion arguing that since all knowledge is political, serving some interests at the expense of others, the task for the sociologist is simply to choose sides; to decide which interests sociological knowledge should serve. Becker argues that Sociology should side with the disadvantaged.
An essay plan on the Marxist Theory of Crime and Deviance – starting with an introduction outlining the Marxist conception of social class and then covering 4-5 key points such as the costs of corporate crime, selective law enforcement and crimogenic capitalism, with some overall evaluations and a conclusion to round off.
Anthony Giddens is one of the world’s leading sociologists and one of the main critics of Postmodern thought – and should be taught as part of the second year A level Sociology module in Theory and Methods. Below is a summary of one of his major works – Modernity and Self-Identity (the introduction and chapter one).
Introduction – An Overview of the Whole Book –
Modernity is more complex and interconnected than ever before and modern institutions are more dynamic than at any previous point in history – at both an institutional level and in terms of how they impact on the individual and intimate life.
In modernity there is an increasing interconnection between two extremes – the global and personal dispositions (extensionality and intentionality).
The new mechanisms of self-identity shape and are shaped by the institutions of modernity and Sociology is a fundamental part of the institutional reflexivity of modernity.
There is a basic dialectic between modern institutions which encourage the repression of ‘living out’ existential questions in day to day life and the emergence of life-politics which seeks to manifest them.
Late Modernity has the following characteristics:
It is more intensely reflexive.
There has been a profound reorganisation of time and space – disembedding mechanisms change the nature of day to day social life.
It institutionalises radical doubt – all knowledge takes the form of a hypothesis – claims which may be true are always potentially open for revision such that the self has to be continuously (re-) made amidst a puzzling array of possibilities.
In circumstances of uncertainty and multiple choice the notions of risk and trust become central. Trust is necessary to form a protective cocoon so that we may ‘go on’ with our day to day life. Risk is also central – in modernity the future is continuously drawn into the present by means of the reflexive organisation of knowledge environments. Modernity makes some areas of life safer, but also opens up new risks.
The influence of distant happenings on proximate events become more and more common place – the media is common place and is what binds us together in this (against hyperreality).
Because of all of the above ‘lifestyle’ becomes central – reflexively organised life planning becomes a central feature of the structuring of self-identity, which normally presumes a consideration of risks as filtered through contact with expert knowledge.
The Pure Relationship is the main type of relationship.
Re-skilling becomes central to life.
The construction and control of the body becomes central.
Science, technology and expertise play a more fundamental role in the ‘sequestration of experience’. The overall thrust of modern institutions is to create settings of action ordered in terms of modernity’s own dynamics and severed from external criteria’ – as a result action becomes severed from existential questions.
Mechanisms of shame rather than guilt come to the fore in late modernity. Narcissism and personal meaninglessness become the main problems of self-development – ”authenticity’ is frequently devoid of any moral anchoring.
Yet the repression of existential questions is not complete – and life politics emerges in response.
Baudrillard confuses the pervasive impact of mediated experience with the internal referentiality of the social systems of modernity – these systems become largely autonomous and determined by their own constitutive influences.
The construction of self identity does not float free – class and other divisions can be partially defined through differential access to opportunities for self-actualisation.
Chapter One – The Contours of High Modernity
Starts with the example of divorce to illustrate the gist of the chapter.
The experience of intimate life is not separate from social life. High modernity demands that we continually remake ourselves, and so it is with many relationships – as evidenced in the persistent high divorce rate, which is simply a consequence of the ‘pure relationship’ being the main type of relationship today.
Divorce is not necessarily a tragedy – for some it is an opportunity to further develop themselves, while for others they retreat into a resigned numbness. To make a ‘success’ out of divorce, one has to mourn it, accept that the marriage is ended, and move on!
Modernity: Some general considerations:
Modernity has the following features –
It is industrial – social relations are rooted in the widespread use of material power and machinery in production processes.
It is capitalist – we live in a system of commodity production which involves both competitive product markets and the commodification of labour power.
There are significant institutions of surveillance – the supervisory control of subject populations – both visible and in terms of the use of information to coordinate social activities.
We live in the context of the industrialisation of war – modernity has ushered in a context of ‘total war’ – the potential destructive power of weaponry, most obviously nuclear arms, is immense.
Modernity produces certain distinct social forms – most obviously the nation state, or a system of nation states, which follow coordinated policies or plans on a global scale – nation states permit and entail concentrated reflexive monitoring.
Modernity is also characterised by extreme dynamism – the current world is a runaway world – the pace, scope and profoundness of changes is significantly greater than any time before.
The peculiar character of modernity consists in the following:
Firstly – the separation of time and space and the emptying out of time and space – the clock being the most obvious manifestation which presumed deeply structured changes in the tissue of everyday life, which were universalising, on a global scale. This is a dialectical process – the severance of time from space allows for new formations – such as the ‘use of history to make history’ – as in the significance of the year 2000, just because it was the year 2000.
Secondly – the disembedding of social institutions – the lifting out of social relations from local contexts. There are two main ways this occurs – through symbolic tokens (such as money) and expert systems (therapists) and each of these permeate every aspect of late-modern life, and both depend on trust. Trust, a leap of faith is essential – because in a disembedded system we cannot know everything. Risk is also part of this.
Institutional reflexivity is the third feature of late modernity – the regularised use of knowledge about circumstances of social life as a constitutive element in its organisation and transformation.
The local, the global and the transformation of day-to-day-life
There is a dialectic between Modernity’s universalising efforts and the actual consequences: In the attempt to know and predict everything, in fact competing knowledge systems have emerged, and there is no way of knowing with any certainty which is correct, thus uncertainty lies at the heart of daily life.
The mediation of experience
Today, virtually all experience is mediated, but this does not result in post-modern fragmentation – in fact mediation is precisely what unifies all of us – pre-modern life is what was truly fragmented. We are now all painfully and persistently aware of the various modern problems which we cannot escape.
The Existential Parameters of High Modernity
The Future is the driving force of high modernity – or rather the attempt to colonise it based on the use of knowledge. We do this in the context of risk – We are all confronted with uncertainty because the rise of competing expert systems just makes us more uncertain. Expert knowledge has failed to make the world more predictable.
Why Modernity and Personal Identity?
Because never before has there been a time when so many people have been unified into the demands to reflexively make themselves – it is the institutional context of modernity which makes this possible – Globalisation, and abstract systems demand that we engage in self-construction, and therapy becomes central to this.
The two main sources of official statistics on Crime in the UK (or rather England and Wales!) are:
Police Recorded Crime – which is all crimes recorded by the 43 police forces in England and Wales (as well as the British Transport Police)
The Crime Survey for England and Wales which is a face to face victim survey in which people are asked about their experiences of crime in the previous 12 months.
NB – There are other sources of official statistics on crime, which I’ll come back to later, but these are the two main ones.
Below are three very good web sites which you can use to explore crime stats from the above two sources. The point of this post is really just to direct students to good sources which they can use to explore these statistics (strengths and limitations of crime statistics posts will be forthcoming shortly!)
Published by the Office for National Statistics, Crime in England and Wales provides the most comprehensive coverage of national crime trends. I’d actually recommend starting with the methodology section of this document, which states
This is a good starting point for exploring crime statistics. You can click on an interactive map which will show you how much crime there is in your area. NB this map shows you only police recorded crime, and there are many, many crimes which are not recorded, for various reasons.
This site describes itself as ‘the leading crime and property data’ website – scroll down for a nice colour coded analysis of crime trends for a number of different crime categories. Reported month by month (2 month data lag). I think the table below is CSEW data
What I particularly like about this web site is that it provides data tables by police force – Here’s a link to data for the Surrey Police (Local link, I teach in Surrey, where my measly teacher salary makes me feel poor because of the sickening and unjustified wealth in the local area.) The data below is Police Recorded Crime data.
When looking at statistics on crime, make sure you know whether the stats come from Police Recorded Crime or the Crime Survey of England and Wales (a victim survey) – the two figures will be different, and the difference between them will be different depending on the type of crime – for example the stats for vehicle theft are quite similar (because of insurance claims requiring a police report) but domestic violence figures are very different from these two sources because most offences do not get reported to the police, but many more (but not all) get reported to the CSEW researchers.
A brief overview of some sociological perspectives on crime and deviance – from Functionalism through to Right Realism.
Argue that societies need a limited amount of crime, because crime is inevitable (society of saints argument) and that crime performs three positive functions: regulation, integration and change. Also see Durkheim’s work on suicide.
Social Control Theory
The cause of deviance is the breakdown or weakening of informal agencies of social control such as the family and community. Criminal activity occurs when the individual’s attachment to society is weakened. According to Hirschi there are four types of social bond
Merton’s Strain Theory
Crime and deviance occur in times of anomie when there is a ‘strain’ between society’s socially approved ‘success goals’ and the opportunities available to achieve these goals. Crime occurs when individuals still want to achieve the success goals of society but abandon the socially approved means of obtaining those goals.
Explains deviance in terms of the subculture of certain social groups. Deviance is the result of individuals suffering ‘status frustration’ and conforming to the values and norms of a subculture which rewards them for being deviant. Focuses on crimes of the working class.
Explain crime in terms of Capitalism and the class structure – The Ruling classes make the law to benefit them, the law protects private property. Ruling and Middle class crime is more harmful than working class crime but ruling classes are less likely to get caught and punished for crime. Selective law enforcement performs ideological functions. WCs commit crime due to the ‘dog eat dog’ values of capitalist system – selfishness, materialism.
Focus on how crime is socially constructed, on how certain acts become defined as criminal or deviant, and how certain people are more likely to be defined as deviant than others. Labelling Theory and Moral Panic Theory are key ideas within Interactionism.
Fuses Traditional Marxist and Interactionism. Crime is an outgrowth of capitalism, but moral panics over the relatively minor crimes of marginalised groups make the public side with the ruling class against the marginalised, maintaining social order. Believe that criminology should focus on highlighting the injustices of the Capitalist System in order to change society.
Concerned with working class crime, believe that we should work with the system in order to improve the lives of the victims of crime, who are mainly working class. Marginalisation, relative deprivation and subcultures are the main causes of crime and we should aim to tackle crime on multiple fronts – more community (less militaristic) policing and tackling poverty and marginalisation within communities are solutions.
Right Realism is more concerned with practical solutions to crime. Relatively simple theories such as rational choice and Broken Windows theory explain crime and Zero Tolerance Policing and Situational Crime Prevention are the solutions
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.
Mark Scheme for Participant Observation Essay
(adapted from the AQA’s mark scheme for the same essay, AS sociology paper). The above essay should get into the top mark band!
Sound, conceptually detailed knowledge of a range of relevant material on some of the problems of using participant observation (PO). Good understanding of the question and of the presented material.
Appropriate material applied accurately to the issues raised by the question.
There will be some reasonable evaluation or analysis
Broad or deep, accurate but incomplete knowledge of a range of problems of PO. Understands a number of significant aspects of the question; reasonable understanding of the presented material.
Application of material is largely explicitly relevant to the question, though some material may be inadequately focused.
There will be some limited evaluation or analysis, eg of reasons for loss of objectivity in PO.
Largely accurate knowledge but limited range and depth, eg a basic account of a few practical problems of using PO. Understands some aspects of the question; superficial understanding of the presented material.
Applying listed material from the general topic area but with limited regard for its relevance to the issues raised by the question, or applying a narrow range of more relevant material.
Answers are unlikely to have any evaluation but may have some limited analysis within a largely descriptive account.
Limited undeveloped knowledge, eg two to three insubstantial points about some features of PO. Understands only very limited aspects of the question; simplistic understanding of the presented material.
Limited application of suitable material, and/or material often at a tangent to the demands of the question, eg drifting into advantages of using PO.
Very limited or no evaluation. Attempts at analysis, if any, are thin and disjointed
Very limited knowledge, eg one to two very insubstantial points about PO or about methods in general. Very little/no understanding of the question and of the presented material.
Significant errors, omissions, and/or incoherence in application of material.
An essay plan on Post/ Late Modern perspectives on crime and deviance covering the relationship between consumerism and crime (Robert Reiner), The Vertigo of Late Modernity (Jock Young), the consequences of globalisation for crime, and the rise of cyber crime, all followed by some evaluations and a conclusion.
Brief intro outlining the key ideas of Post/ Late Modernism
Postmodern society is different to modern society – It is more consumerist, and individuals have more freedom of choice than ever before.
Late Modernists argue that crime has changed in some fundamental ways in the age of postmodernity
Point One – Consumer society is a high crime society (Robert Reiner)
Crime started to rise in the 1950s with the birth of consumerism
80% of crime is property crime, suggesting a link between the increase in materialism and the rise of crime
Rapid crime increase became especially pronounced with the neoliberal policies of Thatcher
Point Two – The ‘Vertigo of Late Modernity’ (uncertainty) explains crime and deviance today (Jock Young)
Postmodern life is insecure – neither jobs nor relationships are for life. These instabilities create a constant state of ‘anomie’ or meaninglessness.
Thus people no longer find security in their jobs/ relationships, and they thus look for thrills at weekends to give their life meaning – risk taking behaviour is the norm (‘edgework’) and much crime is an outcome of this.
Winlow’s study of night-time violence supports this, as does Katz’s work on ‘Edgework’.
Point Three – Globalisation has resulted in many new types of crime
Postmodern culture is global – there are many new flows of money, goods, technologies and ideas which open up new opportunities for crime.
Some of the most significant types of global crime are drug-crime, people trafficking, cybercrime and the global terrorist threat.
One thing fuelling this is global inequality (demand and supply).
One major consequence is the increase awareness of ‘risk consciousness’ and the increase in fear, especially because of the perceived terrorist threat.
Point Four – New Technologies open up new opportunities for crime, especially cyber-crime
Cybercrime is one of the fastest growth areas of crime and this is global in nature.
Fraud is one type of crime – such as the Nigerian Romance Scam.
Cyber-stalking and harassment also seems to be more common than face to face crimes of this nature.
Governments are also under threat from ‘cyber attacks’ from foreign powers.
+ Society and the nature of crime do seem to have changed in recent years, so it’s worth revisiting the ‘underlying causes’
+ Better than Marxism and Feminism as these theories look at crime more generally, rather than just focussing on issues of power.
– On closer inspection there doesn’t seem to be much new in many late-modern theories of crime – much of it just seems to be Strain Theory updated.
– These theories may be too general to be useful to anyone. If there are multiple causes of crime, which are complex and global, we have no clue what to do to control crime?!?
Conclusion – How useful are post (late) modern theories in helping us understand crime and deviance
On the plus side it is clear that the nature of crime has changed with the onset of a global, hyper-connected postmodern society.
However, we might not need a completely new batch of theories to understand these changes. Marxists, for example, would say that we can understand much global crime, and even much ‘local crime’ because of the increase in economic inequalities which are part of globalisation.
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