Assess the view that what participant observation lacks in terms of reliability & representativeness, it more than makes up for in terms of validity. Participant Observation is where the researcher infiltrates themselves into a certain group or gang to study them from within. The researcher usually puts themselves in a position where they are in the main part of the group, and they usually study the activities and attitudes of the different gang/group members.
The observation is usually carefully thought through, & it is usually recorded in field notes, and can often take months, even years to complete. Participant Observation usually doesn’t start with a definite hypothesis, so new ideas and thoughts about the group or the way that an idea may turn out usually come through when the observer is part of the group. You can either do overt (people know you are doing it) or covert (undercover) observations, or even a combination of both.
Although this may seem like a very kosher method to use, there are quite a few disadvantages of doing this; Bias is a concern because if the observer starts being drawn into the group, their own views will be abandoned because they may start seeing things through the group’s eyes, and may blind the researcher to other views that may be available. The influence of the researcher may also be a problem, because if a group know that they are being studied, they may alter their behaviour, and so the research is pointless.
For example, with James Patrick’s study of a Glaswegian Gang, he was suspected of holding back in fights and being reluctant to participate in some of the activities of the Gang, and this was pointed out by a member of the gang, but thankfully, the leader of the Gang stood up for Patrick, because he was the only one who actually knew that the gang was being studied. Ethical Issues are also a problem, because if the researcher goes in really deep with the group, then they may have to illegal or immoral activities, which may go against the researcher’s own values.
The actual proof of the study is also a problem because you have no way of replicating the exact study, and so have no way of knowing if the research is true or not. This kind of study is also on too small a scale, and so you cannot repeat it again. Also, due to the micro-ness of it, you cannot make generalisations for the whole population based on one group, or if you were studying gangs and their motives for committing crimes or something like that, you can’t assume that all other gangs will have the same motives.
And finally, most researchers like to study the less powerful groups in society, and there has been a debate over whether this is right or not because we can possibly miss the important issues that are going on. However, there are some advantages to using this method, and so we cannot just assume that all sociologists see this as a bad method to use; By joining a certain group, the sociologist would be able to gain knowledge of certain subjects from that group’s point of view, and they would be able to fully understand the sorts of things that were going on, and gaining different perspectives.
Also, you can generate new ideas from being in a new group, and this can lead you to new perspectives and ideas. You also get more of the truth and honesty if you are doing overt participant observation, so you can quite easily prove or disprove any hypotheses you have come up with. You are also to dig deeper into the group so to speak, because if you are a part of the group, then you can uncover issues that may normally remain hidden or are secretive.
Participant observation is also dynamic because if you are with a group over time, you understand how they work and how attitudes and behaviour change over time. Lastly, you can dig deeper into areas that you aren’t typically able to reach, for example, with young offenders or religious groups. It is, however, simplistic to assume that participant observation will automatically produce valid results, as there are many threats to this validity.