Covert participant observation or ethnography is where the researcher does not reveal that he is actually a researcher.
There are different degrees to which ethnographic research may be covert – fully covert research is where every member of the group being studied believes the researcher to be ‘one of them’ and no one has any idea that the researcher is actually a researcher conducting research.
However, many ‘covert’ studies are actually only partially covert – in some studies researchers may reveal themselves to some participants but not others: Ditton (1977) had to this during her research on ‘fiddling’ in a bakery – she kept making frequent visits to the toilet in order to get off the bakery-line and take field notes about recent, interesting conversations. Some participants became concerned about her and so she had to ‘out’ herself to those people (but not others) so as to maintain her position there.
Some good examples of covert participation include:
Lloyd’s (2012) research while employed in a call centre in Middlesborough
Pearson’s (2009) research study on football hooligans
Matley’s (2006) research on a sex fantasy phone line
The BBC (2003) documentary ‘The Secret Policeman’ – investigating police racism. This is journalistic rather than sociological, but just so interesting.
Macintyre’s (1999) BBC documentary on football hooligans – again, journalistic rather than sociological, but it does tie in nicely with Pearson’s research.
Patrick’s (1973) study on a violent Glasgow gang
Humphries (the one and only): Tea Room Trade.
Advantages of covert participant observation
Gaining access, especially to closed groups, is much easier because the researcher does not have to seek permission.
Reactivity is not a problem – if respondents are not aware research is taking place, they are less likely to act differently.
Disadvantages of covert participant observation
The problem of taking field notes – it is almost impossible to take notes as you go when in a covert role. In his study of football hooligans, Pearson had to take notes as soon after the matches as possible, but admits that much information was probably forgotten.
You can’t use other methods – if you’re in a covert role, you have to act as the natives do without raising suspicion, and you can hardly whip our your social survey or start doing probing-interviews, because that’s not normal. (unless you’re researching social researchers who spend their lives researching each other).
Stress – the covert researcher is under constant pressure due to having to ‘maintain a front’ (frontstage, if you like) and on top of this has to then record data back-stage – it’s like working two jobs. Add to this the worry of having your cover blown, and the fact that if this happens, the entire project may be down the drain, and that’s a lot of stress.
Ethical problems – Covert research does not allow for the participants to give informed consent, because it involves deception. There is also the issue of privacy being violated, and the fact that some researchers may have to engage in criminal acts in order to not blow their cover, as in the case of Pearson’s research with football hooligans.
Participant observation is one the main research methods on the A level sociology syllabus, but many of the examples in the main text books are painfully out of date. This post provides some more recent examples of research studies which employed participant observation as their main research method.
Covert Participant Observation
Pearson’s (2009) covert participant observation study of Blackpool Football Club’s supporters
Pearson carried out covert participant observation of supporters of Blackpool Football Club between 1995 and 1998. He was known to other supporters as a student pursuing a degree in law, but his status as an academic researcher was unknown to them. His approach was to meet up with them in the pub before a match or sometimes on entering the stadium, and to meet up with them afterwards for a drink. He attended seventy-eight matches but notes that because he did not live in the area, he was unable to observe the supporters outside of a football context.
He chose Blackpool F.C. because it was close to Lancaster, where he was a student, and because of its reputation as having problems with football hooliganism. He seems to have been able to gradually insinuate himself into the supporters’ world by being recognised as a regular fan. Pearson played up his knowledge of the game and the club and was able to integrate himself into their world.
Pearson says of his research…’ whilst it was possible to avoid committing some individual offences, a refusal to commit crimes on a regular basis would have aroused suspicions and reduced research opportunities. As a result I committed ‘minor’ offences (which I tentatively defined as those would not cause direct physical harm to a research subject). My strategy was to commit only the offences which the majority of the research subjects were committing and that I considered necessary to carry out the research. Furthermore, whilst I would commit lesser offences with regularity, I would, if possible, avoid more serious ones.’ (Pearson, 2009).
Pearson’s research is a good example of covert research in which Pearson participated fully with the activities of the group…he was a ‘covert full member’ of the group he was observing.
Overt Participant Observation
Khan’s (2011, 2014) ethnography of an elite high school in the United States
The majority of ethnographic work seems to have been carried out with (on?) the poor and the marginalised, Khan’s work provides us with a rare ethnographic study of an elite institution.
Khan says: ‘ethnography is a method wherein the scholar embeds himself in the relations under study, spending long periods of time with research subjects. For me, it meant getting a job at St. Paul’s School… I moved into an apartment on campus, and… observed the daily life of the school. After my years at St. Paul’s I returned many times, and I sought out alumni to interview and discuss some of the things I’d learned (Khan 2014).
Similarly to Pearson, Khan is also a full member of the group which he is observing, it’s just that his group knows he is doing research.
In contrast to Pearson’s research, this ethnography by Khan illustrates one of the main advantages overt participant observation has over covert: you can carry on collecting data from the respondents afterwards!
Mears’s (2011) ethnography of the world of the fashion model
‘Two and a half years would be spend in participant observation, or more like ‘observant participation’ (a term borrowed from Wacquant 2004) working for both agencies in the full range of modelling work, including five Fashion Weeks, hundreds of castings, and dozens of jobs in every type of modelling work – catwalk shows, magazine shoots in studios and outdoors…. I sat besides bookers at their table in the office drank with them at their favourite pubs, and hung out with them backstage at fashion shows. As I was nearing the end of the participant observation phase… and withdrawing from modelling work, I formally interviewed a sample of bookers, managers and accountants’ (Mears, 2013).
In contrast to Khan’s research, Mears explicitly puts the observation before the participation, which suggests she is less immersed in the day to day life of her group than Kahn was.
Sampson’s (2013) ethnographic research on international seafarers
In April 1999, Sampson boarded her first cargo ship. ‘Contrary to my fears, the crew of Swedish and Filipino seafarers welcomed me into their lives and for forty-two days I lived and worked alongside them, painting the ship with them, venturing ashore to Seamen’s bars with them, laughing with them, even dancing and singing with them’. (2013)
This final example is what Bryman refers to as a ‘participating’ observer’ rather than a ‘full member’ – Sampson is working for the shipping company with the men on a very temporary basis.
The above four examples of participant observation studies are all taken from Bryman’s (2016) research methods book. Bryman ranges several studies (23 in total) on a scale ranging from ‘full member’ through to ‘partially participating observer’ down to ‘non-participating observer with interaction’.
Students might find it interesting to note that the well known study ‘Gang Leader for a Day’ (Venkatesh, 2008) is in Bryman’s ‘minimally participating observer’ category, 17th out of 23rd on the above scale, which makes it closer to a non-participant study! Actually I’ve read it, and I can see his point.
Bryman, Alan (2016) Social Research Methods, Oxford University Press
Unfortunately for David Cameron the image he is painting of gangs is largely nonsense, at least according to to this recent Thinking Allowed Podcast which looks at a recent piece of research on a gang in Glasgow, the main aim of which was simply to explore what gang membership actually meant to the gang members (rather than doing what David Cameron did which is spouting nonsense based on media stereotypes).
The research is by Alistair Fraser – ‘Urban Legends: Gang Identity in the Post-Industrial City – (first chapter for free). He’s based at Glasgow University and spent 4 years embedded with a gang known as the Langview Young Team – working as a social worker and and outreach worker, spending time hanging out with various gang members (mostly losing at table tennis apparently) and living as part of the local community for 18 months.
He researched one gang – The Langview Young Team (YTM) – a shifting cast of 14-16 year white males who had all grown up in a small territorial area without travelling outside much.For context on Glasgow gangs this article by a local paper is worth a quick read.
Some of his main findings were:
The idea that the gang is like a club which you’re either in or out of and which affects every aspect of members’ lives wasn’t true – rather the gang was a fluid and shifting source of identity for members.
Membership wasn’t fixed or static or stable – its membership was diffuse and shifting. It was not a coherent group, and it was actually quite hard to tell who was a member because there were no initiation rituals.
The gang was something which many people grew up with but grew out of.
The gang was contingent and situational – it was based mainly on a sense of place, linked to structural exclusion and physical immobility linked to living in a post-industrial area in decline (lack of other opportunities).
Violence existed, but less than you might expect.
Status was mostly gained through constant battles of one one-upmanship, often linked to games of football and other games.
Identity in the gang was rooted in two things – in physical locality and also to a sense of local history – membership passed down from older to younger members – young people basically inherited gang membership by virtue of living their whole lives in one area.
Changes in the community meant that there was declining space available for young people to gather this (and possibly the rise of mobile technology) related in young people retreating from the street, which means that there is possibly a decline in gang-identity.
Finally, it’s worth pointing out that Fraser argues that that the typical media-representation of gangs as tight-knit groups who demand a kind of ‘master-status’ commitment from members is misleading. He suggests that there are a such a wide-variety of gangs that we shouldn’t lump them all in the same category – we really need new concepts to describe the variety of different types of gang that are out there (and maybe something a little more up to date than Cloward and Ohlin’s ‘three types of subculture.)
Very finally, something else which was discussed was the relevance of the self-fulfilling prophecy – if officials label a diffuse gang of people as a gang, the leaders emerge claiming to be leaders of it!
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.
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 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.
OvertObservation – 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
Participant Observation in the Context of Education
Given the practical and ethical problems of conducting participant observation in a school setting, there are only a handful of such studies which have been carried out in the UK, and these are mainly historical, done a long time ago. They are, nonetheless interesting as examples of research. Below I consider one classic participant observation study in the context of education – Paul Willis‘ Learning to Labour (1977)
Learning to labour
Learning to Labour by Paul Willis (1977) is an ethnographic study of twelve working class ‘lads’ from a school in Birmingham conducted between 1972 and 1975. He spent a total of 18 months observing the lads in school and then a further 6 months following them into work. The study aimed to uncover the question of how and why “working class kids get working class jobs” (1977: 1) using a wide range of qualitative research methodologies from interviews, group discussions to participant observation, aiming to understand participants’ actions from the participants’ point of view in everyday contexts.
Willis concentrated on a particular boy’s group in a non-selective secondary school in the Midlands, who called themselves ‘lads’. They were all white, although the school also contained many pupils from West Indian and Asian backgrounds. The school population was approximately 600, and the school was predominantly working class in intake. He states that the main reasons why he selected this school was because it was the typical type of school attended by working class pupils.
Willis attended all school classes, options (leisure activities) and career classes which took place at various times. He also spoke to parents of the 12 ‘lads’, senior masters of the school, and main junior teachers as well as careers officers in contact with the concerned ‘lads’. He also followed these 12 ‘lads’ into work for 6 months. NB He also made extensive use of unstructured interviews, but here we’re focusing on the observation aspects.
Participant observation allowed Willis to immerse himself into the social settings of the lads and gave him the opportunity to ask the lads (typically open) questions about their behaviour that day or the night before, encouraging them to explain themselves in their own words…which included detailed accounts of the lads fighting, getting into trouble with teachers, bunking lessons, setting off fire extinguishers for fun and vandalising a coach on a school trip.
One of Willis’ most important findings was that the lads were completely uninterested in school – they saw the whole point of school as ‘having a laff’ rather than trying to get qualifications. Their approach to school was to survive it, to do as little work as possible, and to have as much fun as possible by pushing the boundaries of authority and bunking as much as they could. The reason they didn’t value education is because they anticipated getting factory jobs which didn’t require any formal qualifications. They saw school as a ‘bit cissy’ and for middle class kids.
Willis does not include an account of how he approached the ‘lads’ and built rapport with them. However considering the responses of the ‘lads’ during discussions and interviews, seeing that the ‘lads’ openly talk about their views and experiences and allow access to work at a later stage of the research, Willis seems to have built rapport effectively.
For more details the findings of this study see the Neo-Marxism section of the ‘Perspectives on Education Hand-Out’
Practical Issues with Learning to Labour
The research was very time consuming – 2 years of research and then a further 2 years to write up the results.
It would be very difficult to repeat this research today given that it would be harder to gain access to schools (also see reliability)
Funding would also probably be out of the question today given the time taken and small sample size.
Ethical Issues with Learning to Labour
An ethical strength of the research is that it is giving the lads a voice – these are lads who are normally ‘talked about’ as problems, and don’t effectively have a voice.
An ethical weakness is that Willis witnessed the lads getting into fights, their Racism and Homophobia, as well as them vandalising school property but did nothing about it.
A second ethical weakness is the issue of confidentiality – with such a small sample size, it would be relatively easy for people who knew them to guess which lads Willis had been focussing on
Theoretical Issues with Learning to Labour
Validity is widely regarded as being excellent because of the unstructured, open ended nature of the research allowing Willis to sensitively push the lads into giving in-depth explanations of their world view.
Critics have tried to argue that the fact he was obviously a researcher, and an adult, may have meant the lads played up, but he counters this by saying that no one can put on act for 2 years, at some point you have to relax and be yourself.
Something which may undermined the validity is Willis’ interpretation of the data – he could have selected aspects of the immense amount of data he had to support his biased opinion of the boys.
Representativeness is poor – because the sample size is only 12, and they are only white boys.
Reliability is low – It is very difficult to repeat this research for the reasons mentioned under practical factors.
You might also like this summary of more recent research on why the white working classes continue to underachieve in education.