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Assess the strengths and weaknesses of participant observation, as a research method

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Assess the strengths and weaknesses of participant observation, as a research method Participant observation is when the researcher joins in with the group he/she is studying to get a deeper insight into their lives. The researcher must go through three phases; getting in, staying in and getting out. This means that to begin the study, the researcher must first gain entry to the group. Then, once accepted, the researcher needs to be able to stay in the group to complete the study and finally, the researcher needs to be able to leave the group without any harm once the observation has been completed. There are two types of participant observation; covert and overt. Covert is where the study is carried out 'under cover'. The researcher's real identity and purpose are kept concealed from the group being studied. The researcher takes a false identity and role, usually posing as a genuine member of the group. On the other hand, overt is where the researcher reveals his or her true identity and purpose to the group and asks permission to observe. ...read more.


Participant observation is unlikely to produce reliable data, as each time there is a different researcher, who has their own characteristics and skills. As a result, positivists reject participant observation as an unsystematic method because it cannot be replicated by other researchers. Also, another disadvantage of using participant observation is that it is very time-consuming. For example, William Whyte's study of 'Street Corner Society', took him 4 years to complete. A further disadvantage is that the researcher needs to be trained, to be able to recognise aspects of a situation that are sociologically significant and worth further attention. For instance, if a new sociologist was the conduct a participant observation, without training, then they would not know what to look out for and what aspects are serious, that will need further attention. Moreover, the researcher's age, gender or ethnicity will be a drawback. It may restrict what kinds of groups they can study. However, in the past, some researchers have gone to great lengths to pass, to look like a member of the group. ...read more.


On the other hand, using overt participant observation also has disadvantages. For example, unlike covert, it creates the Hawthorne Effect, which is where the participants, who are being observed, act differently, which undermines the validity of the data. Although, pretending to be an insider rather than an outsider can still affect the validity of the study. It reduces the risk of the Hawthorne Effect, but the addition of a new member can still change the group's behaviour, which also reduces the validity. In conclusion, sociologists who prefer to gain a deeper insight, using firsthand experience would prefer to use covert participant observation. Whereas, sociologists who would rather keep their identity and ask whether they can observe the group, would prefer overt participant observation. Marxists and functionalists argue that because participant observation focuses on the 'micro' levels of actors' meanings; it tends to ignore the wider structural forces that shape our behaviour, such as class inequality or the norms and values into which we are socialised. Therefore, seeing things only through the actors' eyes will never give us the complete picture. ?? ?? ?? ?? Ayshe Caluda ...read more.

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