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Usefulness of participant observation to sociologists Essay

Using information from the items and elsewhere, assess the usefulness of participant observation to sociologists. Participant Observation is a method of data collection that takes advantage of the human ability to empathise. It is often most useful to interpretist sociologists, as the data gathered is usually qualitative, and the research is invariably low in reliability. It is also high in validity, as the information is shared in a trusting environment. However, it is important to remember subjects may exaggerate for sympathy or to boast.

There is a lot of depth and interaction involved in participant observation, therefore the data cannot be turned into measurable statistics. This is good for a sociologist using a micro, or bottom up approach, as they require feeling and opinions rather than numbers, as with positivists. Having said this, Emile Durkheim regarded suicide as a ‘social fact’, and used suicide statistics as hard evidence to explain a persons behaviour. Participant observation is adopted by sociologists aiming to discover the nature of reality, and get involved with other peoples interpretation and understanding of particular social environments.

Thus it is sometimes referred to as a ‘naturalistic’ method. Researchers want to put themselves in the shoes of another way of life, to get to the heart and live it as it is. Participant observers face many difficulties in getting accepted by the group they wish to study, especially if they use a covert approach, as trust has to be gained and the researcher must ensure they blend in, and not arouse suspision. Getting discovered would not only cause trouble, and even gage violent reactions, but would also waste a lot of time and money spent on the observation.

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For example, BBC reporter Donal Macintyre put himself at risk when he studied football hooliganism, or more specifically, the Chelsea headhunters. In order for him to get accepted by the group, he had to do a lot of background research using secondary sources. Not only this, but he had to to ensure his appearance and the way he acted was the same as the other hooligans. This conforming included getting a Chelsea tattoo, and even learning how to swear and smoke properly. Although this process is time consuming, and even drastic, the results he gained led to the arrest of several of the men, and exposed this behaviour.

However, he put himself at great danger, as he could of been found out at any time, and was fully exposed after the programme was shown on TV. Therefore it is important to weigh up the pros and cons of participant observation before a sociologist decides on their method. The sociologist gains very in depth data by getting their information first hand, yet it is impossible to make generalisations from this data as it is usually a very select group of people, who may not represent the wider picture.

Participant observation is usuful for those who have a particular interest in a subject, as they would get to see the world through the eyes of those people. Also, an interest is important otherwise the research may be half hearted and the researcher would likely know what to look for. Participant observation is a very useful, and possibly the only way of gaining access to a group involved in criminal or other socially unacceptable acts. For example, James Patrick (1973) covertly studied a Glasgow gang. No other form of research would have gained such in-depth results.

Even an overt approach would not have been suitable, as the knowledge of a reaseacher in their gang would probably have changed their whole behaviour, and it would have been very difficult for James to get access into their gang, and impossible to gain their trust. The gang would never admit to these acts in questionnaires or other forms of research, as they never had to answer anything to James, he just went along with what they did. A similar situation is William Whyte’s study of a street corner gang in Boston. He became a member of their gang, and learnt that asking questions often resulted in the subjects closing up to him.

Instead he listened, and found out more that way than if they had answered his questions. This shows how useful participant observation is to sociologists, as information can be discovered that would never have occurred to them in another form of research, and correlations can be made within their social group. For example, Donal Macintyre discovered a link between fascism and football hooliganism, which he may not even have considered before his observation. In important factor to keep in mind is the ethical issues involved in covert participant observation.

It should only be fair that people give concent to their being observed, yet this knowledge may affect the results. Sociologists should bare in mind how their research could affect the lives of the subject and their families. Laud Humphreys studied homosexuals by acting as a ‘gay voyeur’ or a ‘watch-queen’ in toilets. He then got some of the mens addresses and a year later interviewed them as part of a heath survey. This may be seen as highly unethical, as he is getting involved in the families of his subjects. Polsky researched pool hustlers overtly in 1971.

Polsky was against covert research: “You damned well better not pretend to be ‘one of them’, because they will test this claim out and one of two things will happen: either you will… get sucked into ‘participant’ observation of the sort you would rather not undertake, or you will be exposed, with still grater negative consequences. You must let the criminals know who you are and if it is done properly it does not sabotage the research”. With participant observation comes the problem of how to record findings accurately, in a way which is unbiased and accurate.

Donal Macintyre used a covert camera to record his findings, which could then be transcripted and studied. This meant Donal was not relying on his memory, and personal interpretation did not get in the way of his results. Field diaries are often used by sociologists. Erving Goffman used a field diary in his study of asylums. He wrote down his findings at the end of the day. It is clear to see the obvious problems of accuracy here, as he may forget vital things, and his personal ideas will affect the way he interprets things.

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