Outline and explain two advantages of choosing overt participant observation as a source of data compared with covert participant observation (10)

How to score 10/10!

This 10 mark (no item) question could appear at the end of either paper 1, or paper 3.

In this post I consider a ‘top band’ answer (provided by the AQA here) which achieved 10/10.

The Question

Outline and explain two advantages of choosing overt participant observation as a source of data compared with covert participant observation (10)

The Mark Scheme:


Note: there are no marks for evaluation on the 10 mark no item questions (there are for the ‘analyse with the item’ 10 mark questions!)

Student Response:

Highlighted to show the different stages of development.

One advantage is that participants are aware you are researching them and so you’re able to write down notes about what you are observing and record it. However, with covert PO you are unable to do so because it would be suspicious, especially if you are observing dangerous ways of life. For example, Venkatesh’s required covert PO as he was unable to write down all the information and relied on retrospective data – from his memory. This means the data could lack validity because he could have forgotten less important aspects from the observation. This issue doesn’t arise with overt observation and so the data is more likely to be valid. 

Overt PO is more objective and can be ethical. The participants are aware that the data is for a study and publication and they are less likely to withdraw. Whereas with covert PO, informed consent has not been collected and participants, after realising they have been deceived may choose to withdraw and not allow the researchers to use the data collected. This means that the data from covert PO may go unpublished and the researcher may have to reconduct another research method, wasting time and energy. 

Examiner Commentary: (10/10 marks)


KT’s Commentary

  • It seems that the examiners just want you to explicitly compare overt with covert… simple really, punishingly simple.
  • And what was that your teacher told you about case studies?! Obviously here, they matter not at all!


Student responses with examiner

Reproduced here for educational purposes!


This post has been written primarily for students of A-level sociology, for more advice on exams please see this page – Exams, essays and short answer questions.

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Outline and explain two arguments against the view that sociology is a science (10)

How to score 10/10!

This 10 mark (no item) question could appear at the end of either paper 1, or paper 3.

In this post I consider a ‘top band’ answer (both are provided by the AQA here) which achieved 10/10.

NB – If you would like to attempt this question BEFORE looking at the full mark response below, then you can review the topic first by clicking here >>> ‘Is sociology a science?‘.

The Question (no item!)

‘Outline and explain two arguments against the view that sociology is a science’ (10)

The Mark Scheme:


Note: there are no marks for evaluation on the 10 mark no item questions (there are for the ‘analyse with the item’ 10 mark questions!)

Student Response:

Highlighted to show the different stages of development

Interpretivism is the view that sociology is not a science. Interpretivists argue that, because humans think and reflect, scientific methods are inappropriate as they do not allow us to truly understand and dig beneath the surface of behaviours and actions. Unlike objects, which can be analysed using scientific methods, Interpretivists argue that human beings change their behaviour if they know they are being observed, called the Hawthorne Effect, therefore if we want to understand social action, we have to delve into meanings using qualitative, unscientific methods. Interpretivists are subjective, meaning science is not appropriate for sociology in their opinion as it gives objective results and data. Interpretivists argue that the purpose of sociology is to understand human behaviour, no quantify it using scientific methods, therefore it cannot possibly be a science.

Kuhn stated that science is paradigmatic, meaning there is a fixed set of rules and principles which science uses. It is like a set of norms and values and is accepted by all scientists. Therefore, according to Kuhn, sociology is pre-paradigmatic and hasn’t reached the stage where there is a general paradigm shared by most social scientists. This is seen by the fact that sociology has a range of views and theoretical perspectives and there is no agreed set of norms and values. Feminists will always disagree with functionalists. Sociological perspectives may also have internal disagreements such as Merton’s criticism of other functionalists. Those who criticise Kuhn, however, would question whether science itself has a paradigm. Many sciences exist with different sets of paradigms such as psychology

Examiner Commentary: (10/10 marks)


KT’s Commentary

If you’re freaked out by the above response, don’t be: if this wasn’t written by an examiner, it’s written by an outstanding candidate.

Students typically find this topic one of the most difficult, and most answers will come NO WHERE NEAR this standard.

Technically, I don’t think the last sentence should get any marks, because it is not focused on the actual question.


AQA 2015

Student responses with examiner
7191 AND 7192

Reproduced here for educational purposes!




Applying material from Item A, analyse two reasons why situational crime prevention strategies may not be effective in reducing crime (10)

My attempt at a model 10/10 answer for this A-level sociology exam question (crime and deviance topic)

This is the 10 mark question in the crime and deviance section of the AQA’s 2015 Specimen A-level sociology paper 3: Crime and Deviance with Theory and Methods.

I used this question as part of our department’s own paper 3 mock exam this year (February 2018).

In this post I consider a ‘lower middle mark band’ student response (4/10 marks) to this question and the examiner commentary (both are provided by the AQA here) before considering what a ‘top band’ answer might look like.

The Question (with the item!)

sociology exam question

The Mark Scheme:

AQA sociology 10 mark question mark scheme.png

Student Response:

student response.png

Examiner Commentary: (4/10 marks)

sociology examiner commentary.png

A top band answer?

The first problem with situational crime prevention techniques such as installing burglar alarms is that they mail fail to increase the risk of getting caught in the subjective opinion of the burglars.

Many criminals are indeed rational and thus may reason that burglar alarms are ineffective – most members of the general public ignore them after all, and some may even be ‘fake’. There is also the fact that the police may take a long time to respond to an alarm, thus if criminals can act quickly enough, they may ‘calculate’ that they can get away with a smash and grab type robbery before the police respond, thus reducing the likelihood of getting caught.

A more effective form of situational crime prevention, other than a burglar alarm, might be a security guard, which would increase the risk of getting caught significantly as they can simply phone the police if there is any suspicious behaviour nearby.

However, security guards are expensive compared to alarms, and so while those places which hire security guards may be protected, crime will just be displaced to those areas with lesser protection (like ineffective alarms or no alarms’.

Finally, if we apply Felson’s ‘Routine Activity Theory’, we know that criminals ‘size up’ their targets when going about their day to day business, so they know the areas which are the least effectively protected and the least risky…. thus target hardening strategies like those mentioned in item are only going to be effective if all properties. use them equally, which is unlikely.

A second problem with Situational Crime Prevention talked about in item A is that not all crime is a rational decision, some crimes are done on the ‘spur of the moment’, for the ‘thrill of the act’, or out of sheer desperation.

Situational Crime Prevention failed, for example, to prevent the London Riots happening – here many of the rioters engaged in looting and vandalism in order to ‘have fun and join in with the party atmosphere’ despite the fact that all of the properties looted were locked and under surveillance, and there being thousands of police on the streets.

The Riots were also fueled by a sense of injustice at police brutality and economic inequality, which suggests that inequality in society ultimately fuels crime, which can spill-over at flash points, no matter how much one ‘hardens targets’: and target hardening does nothing to address the underlying causes of crime such as injustice and inequality.

Another example of a crime which is not rational is football hooliganism – which increasingly just seems to be about ‘fun’ – ‘teams’ of hooligans arrange fights after the match for thrills, and it is difficult to see how situational crime prevention can reduce this, as it’s just about ‘fun’ rather than ‘reward’ in the eyes of those involved.


Right Realist Criminology

Right Realism believes individuals make a rational choice to commit crime, and emphasises tough control measures to reduce crime – such as zero tolerance policing.

By the end of the 1970s Marxist and Interactionist approaches to crime were beginning to lose their popularity in criminology. The basic problem was that these approaches weren’t that useful in actually helping to control or reduce crime – knowing that crime is an outgrowth of capitalism, for example, doesn’t offer any practical solutions to preventing burglary, other than abolishing capitalism, which, let’s face it, isn’t that likely to happen. Similarly, Interactionist approaches which saw crime as socially constructed, and thus not ‘real’ didn’t do much to help the millions of victims who were victims of actual rising crime rates in the 1970s and 80s.

Hence by the beginning of the 1980s, Realist criminology emerged, which differed from previous approaches such as Marxism and Interactionism because it thought criminologists should abandoned grand theorising about the ultimate causes of crime; they should work with governments to develop practical solutions to crime; and they should take seriously the widespread public fear of crime.

Realist Criminology differs to previous criminological theories because….

  1. They abandon ‘Grand Theories’ such as Marxism. They are not interested in looking at the ‘deep structural causes’ such as Capitalism – It is not Criminologists’ job to get rid of Capitalism so it is pointless focussing on it.

  2. They are more ‘pragmatic’. They ask how governments can reduce crime here and now, and work within the constraints of the social system.

  3. They take a victim- centred approach to crime, putting victims and the public’s concern about crime at the centre of theorising and policy making.

Realist approaches emerged in the 1970s and 80s in the context of right wing neoliberal governments coming to power in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Although neoliberal governments favoured policies of lower taxation and the rolling back of the welfare state, the one area where the state did have a a role to play was in the maintenance of law and order, and realists take a tough approach to offenders, generally emphasising the increased use of police and punishment to keep crime rates in check.

Right and Left Realism

There are two types of realism – both share the above features in common, but there are signficiant differences –

Right Realism is associated with the right wing neoliberal government of Margaret Thatcher which came to power in 1979, although most of the governments which followed have adopted more right realist policies.

Right Realists Reject the idea put forward by Marxists that deeper structural or economic factors such as poverty are the causes of crime – they mainly hold that the individual is responsible for crime – although they do accept that high levels of ‘social disorder’ and low levels of ‘social control’ are associated with higher crime rates. Right Realism tends to focus on the individual as being responsible for crime, arguing that we need to get tough on criminals to reduce crime.

Left Realists on the other hand are more left wing and and argue that inequality is the main cause of crime and we need more community interventions to reduce crime.

Right Realism – The Causes of Crime

Although they aren’t especially interested in the causes, they still have a theory of what ‘causes crime’ – The two main theories about the causes of crime associated with Right Realism are ‘Rational Choice Theory’, ‘Broken Windows Theory’, and Charles Murray’s Underclass Theory (also a form of subcultural theory).

Rational Choice theory

An important element in the right realist theory of crime is the idea that crime is a matter of individual choice – individuals choose to commit crime.

Rational Choice Theory states that most criminals are rational actors. If the criminal calculates that the risk of getting caught is low, or that the punishment if caught will not be severe, then they are more likely to commit crime, assuming the reward for doing that crime is high enough. They are rational in that they weigh up the costs and benefits in order to assess whether a crime is worth committing.

What rational choice theory predicts is that crime will increase if the following happens:

  • If crime brings higher rewards relative to working within the rules of society. Rewards could be material, or they could be things like higher status or more security.

  • There is no risk of getting caught committing a crime

  • There is no punishment for crime

Rational choice theory has been developed by Cohen and Felson in their ‘Routine Activities Theory’ (1979). They argued that in most circumstances social control mechanisms, lack of opportunity and/ or the risk of getting caught prevented crime from taking place. Crime therefore needed three conditions to take place:

1. Individuals who were motivated to offend

2. The availability of opportunity and targets

3. The lack of capable guardians such as parents or police who might prevent crime occurring.

Most crime in their view was opportunistic, rather than planned in advance. Therefore, if individuals motivated to commit crimes encountered easy opportunities to commit them in the routine activities of their daily lives then crime was more likely to occur.

Broken Windows Theory (Wilson and Kelling 1982)

broken windows

This approach is based on James Q. Wilson and George Kelling’s (1982) article ‘Broken Windows’, which has been described as ‘perhaps the most influential single article on crime prevention ever written’. (Downes, 1992).

Wilson and Kelling use the the phrase ‘broken windows’ to stand for all the various signs of disorder and lack of concern for others that are found in some neighbourhoods. This includes undue noise, graffiti, begging, dog fouling ,littering, vandalism and so on. They argue that leaving broken windows unrepaired, tolerating aggressive behaviour etc. sends out a signal that no one cares.

In such neighbourhoods, there is an absence of both formal social control and informal social control (the police and the community respectively). The policy are only concerned with serious crime and turn a blind eye to petty nuisance behaviour, while members of the community feel intimidated and powerless. Without remedial action, the situation deteriorates, tipping the neighbourhood into a spiral of decline. Respectable people move out (if they can) and the area becomes a magnet for deviants.

Charles Murray and the Underclass

Charles Murray argued that changes to family structure was responsible for much of the increase in the crime rate in the 1970s and 80s – he largely attributes the growth of crime because of a growing underclass or ‘new rabble’ who are defined by their deviant behaviour and fail to socialise their children properly. The children of the underclass fail to learn self-control and also fail to learn the difference between right and wrong.

The underclass has increased because of increasing welfare dependency. Murray argues that increasingly generous welfare benefits since the 1960s have led to increasing numbers of people to become dependent on the state. This has led to to the decline of marriage and the growth of lone parent families, because women can now live off benefits rather than having to get married to have children. This also means that men no longer have to take responsibility for supporting their families, so they no longer need to work.

According to Murry, lone mothers are ineffective agents of socialisation, especially for boys. Absent fathers mean than boys lack paternal discipline and appropriate male role models. As a result, young males turn to other, delinquent role models on the street to gain status through crime rather than supporting their families through a steady job.

Increasing crime is effectively a result of children growing up surrounded by delinquent, deviant criminal adults which creates a perfect crimogenic environment.

For Murray, the underclass is not only a source of crime, its very existence threatens society’s cohesion by undermining the values of hard work and personal responsibility.

Evaluations – THINK about the following…

  1. Supporting Evidence: Crimes this theory can explain – Is there any statistical evidence or case study* evidence which supports this theory?

  2. Criticising evidence: Crimes this theory cannot explain – Is there any statistical evidence or case study evidence which criticises this theory?

  3. Evaluate using other perspectives – What does the theory under investigation ignore?

  4. Historical evaluation – Has society changed so much that the theory is just no longer relevant?

  5. Evaluate in terms of ideology/ power – Is the theory biased, does it serve the powerful

Right Realism – Controlling Crime

Right realists emphasise two main techniques of crime control – situational crime prevention, and environmental crime prevention, both of which involve making it harder for criminals to commit crime and increasing the risk of getting caught committing crime, thus making crime a less attractive proposition to prospective criminals. Situational Crime Prevention involves protecting specific targets from potential criminals – by putting window locks on windows, or putting CCTV in a shop for example, while Environmental Crime Prevention focusses on making whole neighbourhoods or larger areas more crime-resistant, through putting more police on the streets for example, or adopting a more ‘Zero Tolerance’ approach to minor crimes.

Situational Crime Prevention (SCP)

Situational crime prevention policies focus on the specific point at which potential victims and criminals come together, making it harder for the criminal to commit crime. They stem directly from Rational Choice Theory and involve either reducing the opportunity for people to commit crime or increasing the risk of getting caught when committing a crime.

situational crime prevention

There are two basic ways you can do this – through increasing surveillance of the population (monitoring their behaviour and making them aware of the fact they are being monitored) and target hardening (making buildings, objects and people harder to steal or kidnap or damage).

One of the major reasons why governments find such policies so appealing is because they are relatively cheap and simple to implement. Situational crime prevention techniques can be carried out by a wide range of actors – not only formal social control agencies such as the government, police but also local councils, schools, business and private individuals can make their property and possessions harder to burgle or steal relatively easily.

Marcus Felson (1998) gives an example of a situational crime prevention strategy. The Port Authority bus terminal in New York City was poorly designed and provided opportunities for crimes – for example the toilets were a good place to steal luggage, deal drugs and engage in homosexual sex. Re-shaping the physical environment to ‘design out’ crime led to a large reduction in crime. For example, replacing the large sinks which homeless people used for washing reduced the numbers of homeless people hanging around the bus station.

Another example of where situational crime prevention has been successful is around suicide prevention. In the early 1960s, around half of all suicides in Britain were the result of gassing. At that time, Britain’s gas supply came from highly toxic coal gas, but from the 1960s coal gas was gradually replaced by less toxic natural gas, and by 1997, suicides from gassing had fallen to bear zero, with the suicide rate overall witnessing a corresponding decline (ie people hadn’t simply switched to other means of killing themselves.

Other policies associated with Right Realism include ASBOs and the use of prison sentences for minor crimes – we return to both of these in a later topic.

Evaluations of Situational Crime Prevention

  • The Port Authority Bus Terminal Building is an example where this worked.

  • Newburn (2013) points to an obvious link between improved car security measures and reduced car crime.

  • Ignores factors such as inequality and deprivation as causes of crime (Garland 2001).

  • Ignores the role of emotion and thrill as a cause of crime (Lyng 1990)

  • Only tackles opportunistic street crime – won’t work for DV, white collar crime, or state crime.

  • It leads to crime displacement. One criticism of situational crime prevention measures is that they do not reduce crime, they simply displace it, or make it move to another place or another time. After all, if criminals are acting rationally, they will simply move on to easier targets.

  • It creates divided ‘Fortress cities’ (Bauman), as the wealthy hide away behind gated communities leaving poorer people in the ‘mean streets’ outside.

Environmental Crime Prevention

Environmental crime prevention strategies involve changing the broader area or environment in which crime occurs through increasing formal and informal social control measures in order to clamp down on anti-social behaviour and prevent an area from deteriorating. These strategies tend to rely much more heavily on the police than situational crime prevention strategies.

Environmental Crime Prevention strategies stem directly from Wilson and Kelling’s Broken Window’s theory which suggests that disorder and the absence of controls leads to crime. Examples of ECP policies include Zero Tolerance Policing, ASBOs, curfews, street drinking bans, dispersal orders and the three strikes rule in America.

Zero Tolerance Policing

Zero Tolerance Policing involves strictly enforcing penalties for relatively minor crimes or anti-social behaviour such as begging, drug possession, public drinking.

This approach was famously used to crack down on rapidly increasing crime in New York City in the 1980s, which was suffering from a crime epidemic, linked to high levels crack-cocaine use a that time.

Specific examples of Zero Tolerance approaches adopted at that time included a ‘clean car program’ which was instituted on the subway, in which tube-cars were taken out of service immediately if they had any graffiti on them, only being returned once clean. As a result graffiti was largely removed from the subways.

Other successful programmes were put in place to tackle fair dodging, drug dealing and begging. This resulted in a 50% reduction in crime in New York City between the years 1993 and 1996.

Evaluations of Environmental Crime Prevention

  • The New York ‘Zero Tolerance’ study suggests that zero tolerance policies work to reduce crime.

  • HOWEVER, Levitt and Dubner in Freakonomics found that this correlation was coincidental – other factors were responsible for the decline in crime.

  • It is more expensive than situational crime prevention – it takes a lot of police to patrol an area and clamp down on anti-social behaviour.

  • Reiner (2015) argues that the police would be better deployed focusing on more serious crime hot spots rather than clamping down on minor forms of anti-social behaviour.

  • From an Interactionist perspective, giving more power to the police will just lead to more labelling and more criminal careers.

Related Posts 

For more please see my main page on crime and deviance.

Right Realist Criminology is usually followed by Left Realist Criminology 


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