Heidi Safia Mirza: Young Female and Black

Young Female and Black is a research study of 198 young women and men who attended two comprehensive schools in London in the late 1980s. The main focus of the study is on 62 black women. The book was published in 1992.

Mirza used a variety of research methods, but this is primarily an example of a qualitative research study using observations and interviews with both pupils and parents. 

The myth of Underachievement 

Mirza argued that there was evidence of racism from some teachers, and that some of the girls felt that teachers had low expectations of them, she argues that these negative labels did not have a negative impact on the girls’ self-esteem.

When asked who they most admired, almost 50% of the girls said themselves, and the black girls in the study achieved better exam results than black boys and white girls in the school, both of which criticise the labelling theory of underachievement.

Types of Teacher

Overt Racists

These teachers were ‘overtly racist’. One of them even used the term ‘wog’ when talking to one of the black girls. The girls tried to avoid these teachers as far as possible and strongly rejected their negative opinions of black people.

The Christians

These teachers had a ‘colour blind’ attitude to ethnic differences. Their attitude was less harmful than that of the overt racists, but did create some problems. For example, they opposed the setting up multi-ethnic working parties because they didn’t believe there was a problem with racism in the school.

The crusaders

These were the teachers who tried to actively develop anti racist teaching strategies in their classrooms, however this could backfire. For example one teacher introduced a role play about a truanting pupil and her social worker, designed to reflect the experience of black pupils. However none of the girls in the class has ever played truant or had a social worker.

The liberal chauvenists

These teachers genuinely wanted to help black students, but their help was often patronizing and counter-productive. For example some teachers insisted black girls did less subjects because they felt they could not cope with a more demanding work load, because of issues like their parents not being able to cope at home.

This later point seems very similar to what Gilborn and Youdell found with banding and streaming!

Despite this, this group of teachers was well respected by the all students and were generally useful in helping identifying the needs of black girls.

Ineffective Teachers and Alternative Strategies

Most of the teachers were genuinley concerned with helping the black girls achieve a decent education, however, most failed to so and negative labelling made if difficult for the girls to realise their full potential.

Despite this, the girls were committed to academic success, but felt it necessary to avoid asking for help from most teachers, which was detrimental to their success.

Conclusions

This is an interesting study that criticises the labelling theory of educational acheivement – the girls did not accept their negative labels from their teachers and had positive self-esteem.

However, the end result was that still failed to reach their full potential because their only coping strategy amidst overt racism and negative labelling was to avoid teachers as far as possible and effectively study by themselves, meaning they were still disadvantaged in education.

Adapted from Harlambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives, edition 8.

Cecile Wright: Racism in Multi-Ethnic Primary Schools

This classic ethnographic study suggests that teacher stereotypes and labelling have a negative impact on Asian and Black Caribbean students in primary schools

This classic ethnographic study of four inner city primary schools suggests that the teacher labeling of ethnic minorities leads to them having a more negative experience of school than white children.

The study took place In 1988-1989, and was published in 192. The main research methods included classroom observations and interviews with both school staff (teachers, managers and support staff) and the parents of some students.

The study involved researching almost 1000 students, 57 staff and 38 parents.

Wright’s main conclusion was that although the majority of staff seemed genuinely committed to the ideals of treating students from different ethnic background equally, in practice there was discrimination within the classroom.

This study seems to be great support for the labeling theory of education and suggests that in school factors are one of the main reasons for the underachievement of ethnic minority students.

Asians in Primary Schools

Wright found that Asian students were often excluded from classroom discussions because teachers thought they had a poor grasp of the English language. When teachers did involve Asian students they often used simplistic language.

Asian girls seemed invisible to teachers and they received less attention from teachers than other students. Teachers often showed insensitivity towards their cultural norms such as disapproving when Asian girls wanted to maintain privacy in PE when getting changed.

She cites one example when a teacher was handing out permission letters for a school trip saying to the Asian girls: ‘I suppose we’l have problems with you girls. Is it worth me giving you a letter, because your parents don’t allow you be be away from home overnight’?

Wright concluded that such stereotypical comments from teachers resulted in other students becoming hostile to Asian students and the Asian students becoming isolated.

It also led to the Asian students becoming more ambivalent towards school. For example, when the school introduced a celebration of Asian culture into the curriculum while Asian students did express some pride in having their culture recognized, they also felt concerned that this might lead to more teasing and harassment from white children.

Teachers did, however, expect Asian students to be academically successful.

Black Caribbeans in Primary Schools

Teachers expected Black Caribbean students to be poorly behaved, and they expected that they would have to be punished as a result. Teachers were also insensitive to the fact that many students would have been victims of racism.

Wright cites the example in one class of a student called Marcus who was frequently criticized for shouting out the right answers to questions, while white students were not.

Black Caribbean students received a disproportionate amount of teachers negative attention. Compared to white students whose behaviour was the same they were more likely to be:

  • sent out of the class
  • sent to the head teacher
  • have privileges removed.

Trivializing Ethnic Minority Cultures

Teachers often mispronounced words or names related to minority ethnic groups, causing white students to laugh and embarrassment to ethnic minority children. According to Wright this situation made ‘minority ethnic values and culture appear exotic, novel, unimportant, esoteric or difficult’.

Racism from White Students

Minority ethnic students also experienced racism from other students which made their life even more difficult. White children often refused to play with Asian children and frequently subjected them to name calling and threatening behavior. Both Asian and Black Caribbean children had to suffer intimidation, rejection and occasional physical assault.

Conclusions

Wright does point out that all of the above disadvantaging of ethnic minority students is unintentional. Schools and teachers do appear genuinely committed to the values of equality and celebrating multiculturalism, they’re just very bad at putting these into practice and their actions have the opposite effect!

Wright believes that some Black children are disadvantaged as a result of their negative experiences in primary school, and this holds them back at later stages of their school career.

Evaluation of the study

The study doesn’t explain why Black Caribbean are held back by negative experiences in primary school when this doesn’t seem to affect the later achievement of Asian children as badly.

The study has been critizied for portrayign ethnic minority students as the passive victims of racism. In contrast, studies by Mirza and Mac An Ghail see students as responding much more actively (and in much more diverse ways) to racism in schools.

Maybe obviously, the date! This is from the late 1980s!

Sources

Adapted from Harlambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives, edition 8.

Cecile Wright (1992) Race Relations in the Primary School.

The strengths and limitations of covert participant observation

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.

Examples of covert participation

  • 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.

Related Posts:

Participant Observation in Social Research

Sources:

Bryman (2016) Social Research Methods)

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Some (Relatively) Recent Examples of Participant Observation Studies

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.

Dr Geoff Pearson – only committed ‘minor’ offences while doing covert research

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).

You can read an interview with Dr Geoff Pearson here.

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).

Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St Paul’s School – link to Amazon. The first few reviews summarise aspects of the book!

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

Ashley Mears (NB this may have been before she started her formal research!)

‘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).

Mears’s ethnography is reviewed in this London School of Economics book review post

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)

Sampson’s study actually won Thinking Allowed’s first ethnography award in 2014 – A summary of the research can be found at the end of the show here – Thinking Allowed ethnography awards 2014.

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.

Anna Lora-Wainwright (2018) Resigned Activism – Living with Pollution in Rural China

Lora-Wainwright spent from 2009-2013 studying how people in rural China cope when they know severe pollution is having a severely detrimental effect on their health.

NB – this isn’t ‘ordinary pollution’ she’s looking at – she studied three villages in total, all of which are coping with the effects of large-scale industrial pollution because of the heavy manufacturing or waste disposal that occurs in those areas. All of these villages have well over the national average of cancer deaths reported, and it’s obvious the pollution is the problem.

One village was dealing with phosphorus pollution, another Zinc and Lead pollution and the third the pollution from electronic waste. The later village has global notoriety – Guiyu is well known as the world’s largest e waste site.

Lora-Wainwright focused on how people responded when they knew they were being subjected to a significant cancer risk from pollution – how they organised and protested, but also how they just coped on a day to day basis -living with things such as polluted water that’s going to give you cancer if you drink it.

She also focused on how this all ties in with the wider Chinese government’s industrialization agenda and the fact that the government would rather keep reports about such pollution quiet.

The book is currently under revision, but you can listen to a podcast which summarises the findings here.

Sources

Bryman, Alan (2016) Social Research Methods, Oxford University Press

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Sociological Research on Gangs

In the aftermath of England’s ‘summer of violent disorder’ in 2011, the British Prime Minister David Cameron was unequivocal in apportioning blame: ‘At the heart of all the violence sits the issue of the street gangs. Territorial, hierarchical and incredibly violent, they are mostly composed of young boys, mainly from dysfunctional homes’.

A few days later, Cameron declared ‘concerted, all-out war on gangs and gang culture. . . a major criminal disease that has infected streets and estates across our country’

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).

glasgow gangs

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. The gang was something which many people grew up with but grew out of.
  4. 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).
  5. Violence existed, but less than you might expect.
  6. 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!

Brief Evaluation/ Uses

A very useful piece of research that can be used to slate the relevance of consensus subcultural theory – clearly things have moved on!

Very useful example of a piece of Interpretivist ethnography (what does membership mean to the members?)

Of course it is only gang – so Cameron may be right about gangs in London, they could be different!?!

 

Participant Observation – Essay Plan

This question might come up on the theory and or methods sections of AQA A-level sociology papers 1 and 3.

You might like to read my more detailed post on Participant Observation before reading the essay below, which should easily get you into the top mark band.

For more information about the exams, please see this page.

Assess the strengths of Participant Observation in Social Research (20)

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!

MarkDescriptor
13-16Sound, 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
10-12Broad 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.
7-9Largely 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.
4-6Limited 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
1-3Very 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. No analysis or evaluation.

Related Posts 

Participant Observation in Social Research

Participant Observation in Social Research

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

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

Theoretical Advantages

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:

participant observation anthropology

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.

Practical Advantages

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.

Ethical Advantages

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

Theoretical Disadvantages

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.

Practical Disadvantages

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 Disadvantages

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.

Related Posts

Some recent examples of PO studies within sociology

Learning to Labour by Paul Willis – A Summary

Sources:

Bryman (2016) Social Research Methods

Chapman et al (2016) Sociology AQA A-level Year 1 and AS Student Book

Participant Observation to Research Education

Participant Observation studies are favoured by interpretivists as they allow for the collection of rich, qualitative data, and for an in-depth exploration of the thoughts and feelings of individuals involved.

If done rigorously this is the best method for gaining an empathetic understanding with respondents, where we really see the world through their eyes.

Practical issues

One of the main methods of collecting data in Participant Observation is simply ‘hanging out’ with respondents – and it’s difficult to see how an adult researcher is going to be able to ‘hang-out’ with either students or teachers today.

Both are too busy during the formal school day, and with pupils especially there is little chance an adult researcher would be given permission to just hang around with them for child protection reasons, even if pupils wanted to ‘hang-out’ with an adult for a day, week, month, term or longer, which is unlikely for most pupils

There is little chance schools or parents would grant an adult researcher access to research their children in this way, and it would be impossible to do this covertly, because if posing covertly as a teacher or an LF, you wouldn’t naturally ‘hang out’ with students.

In the late 1980s, Mac an Ghaill did conduct overt PO researchers with his students while he was employed as a teacher, focusing on how they dealt with racism, and he did ‘hang out’ with them informally, but today this would be frowned upon.  

If focusing on researching teachers a researcher is more likely to gain access to do overt Participant Observation, but they might be something of an irritation, and teachers might be on their guard about what they say ‘back stage’ if they knew a researcher was present.

A researcher could do covert PO on a school by secretly training as a teacher or an LF, but the whole process of training would take a year in the case of being a teacher.

Observations in a school are also limited by the school day, and terms, you don’t get to do research in holidays, and you probably wouldn’t be able to find out anything about the home lives of either students or teachers using this method.

Finally, if doing covert research undercover, there is the problem of recording data – if you’re employed, you have to do the job, so any recording and writing up would need to be done at the end of the working day.

Theoretical issues

Schools are complex places – they consist of numerous students and intersecting friendship groups, students attend several classes in one day, probably with several different teachers, and there are further interactions during school break times. And If researchers want a full understating of peer group interaction today, they should probably seek to investigate social media interactions, which will occur both before, during and after the formal school day. This sheer complexity means Participant Observation is a good fit research method as it stands the best chance of uncovering the depth of the reality of school life.

However, it’s unlikely that  pupils would wish to reveal their feelings to an adult person ‘hanging out with them’ – in real life, adults generally don’t ‘hang-out’ with children (except their own family), so this would hardly be a naturalistic setting where respondents would be at ease.

If doing PO research with teachers, they would be more likely to relax and act naturally over time, but might ‘impression manage’ if they new a researcher was present doing overt rather than covert research.

Ultimately the validity of data collected depends on the skills and personal characteristics of the researcher, and because these will probably have an impact on the data collected, reliability will probably be low.

In terms of representativeness, this method can only be done in one school at a time, and only with a handful of pupils or teachers, so you couldn’t claim to have data that’s representative of a whole cohort of students nationwide – if you wished to ensure representativeness you would ned to do follow up studies using more quantitative methods.

Ethical issues

Child Protection issues could be a real problem with this method – the more invasive a method, the more chance there is for harm to come to respondents.

If you are researching deviance there is also the question of what to do if you find out children are engaged in activities they shouldn’t be (like underaged drinking) – you would be morally obliged to report this, but this would breach confidentiality.

Young, Gifted and Black

A brief summary of Young, Gifted and Black (1988) by Mairtin Mac an Ghaill and a consideration of the practical, ethical and theoretical advantages and disadvantages of the method in this educational context.

In Young, Gifted and Black (1988) Mairtin Mac an Ghaill carried out two ethnographic studies in inner-city educational institutions where he worked. The first study looked at the relations between white teachers and two groups of male students with anti-school values – the Asian Warriors and the African Caribbean Rasta Heads – and the second study looked at a group of black female students, of African Caribbean and Asian parentage, called the Black Sisters.

Why study this subject?

Because of opportunity – He originally wanted to study Irish school students but no one could help him do this, so he was advised to study African Caribbean students instead. As to the Black Sisters he never intended to study them, but they found him – because he was perceived as being on the side of the students they were happy to talk to him about their views of racism.

Because Mac an Ghaill wanted to gain a close insight into the culture and values of respondents, he chose participatory methods – he became friendly with the students and they visited his home regularly… ‘The experience of talking, eating, dancing and listening to music together helped break down the potential social barriers of the teacher-researcher role that may have been assigned to me and my seeing them as students with the accompanying status perception’

At the time the dominant theories argued that black underachievement was due to subcultures of resistance – the problem was seen as being with the students themselves.

However, following his in-depth research, and his adoption of a ‘black perspective’ he realised that racism rather than the students themselves was the biggest problem in their schooling – their subcultures were a response to a racially structured institution.

Ethical Issues

Mac an Ghaill does not claim to be value free in his research – he was committed to helping students overcome their perceived racial barriers.

The research also brought him into conflict with some other members of staff, as he found himself becoming the defender of ethnic minority students against what he perceived to be a racist institution.

Practical Issues with this research

Mac an Ghaill was only able to do this research because of his position as a teacher, it would have been practically impossible otherwise.

Theoretical Issues

Reliability and Representativeness are both low.

Validity is an interesting one – given the in-depth and participatory nature of the method we might assume that we are gaining a true insight into the thoughts and feelings of the respondents. However, the research has only given us an insight into student perceptions of racism, not whether the institution was actually racist. However, even if the institution wasn’t actually racist, understanding the students perception that it was provides us with new insight into why they formed subculture.

Finally, given that Mac an Ghaill was both researcher and teacher, this may have meant some of the student respondents didn’t open up to him fully.

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Learning to Labour by Paul Willis – Summary and Evaluation of Research Methods

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-labourLearning 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.

Sampling

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.

Data Collection

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.

Findings

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.

 Related Posts

You might also like this summary of more recent research on why the white working classes continue to underachieve in education.