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Using information from the items and elsewhere, assess the usefulness of participant observation to sociologists.

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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. ...read more.


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. ...read more.


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. ...read more.

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