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Discuss the role of the researcher as participant observer in Goffmans' study of asylums.

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Introduction

Discuss the role of the researcher as participant observer in Goffmans' study of asylums. The late Erving Goffman spent three years (during the 1950s) as a participant observer in the St Elizabeth Hospital in Washington D.C. Having already carried out much of his work on the structure of the 'self', Goffman turned to the 'self' within an institution, a mental asylum. My aim throughout this essay is to elaborate on Goffmans' role as a participant observer. I shall discuss participant observation in general, and more specifically covert participant observation - the method Goffman chose. As with any method of research there are advantages and disadvantages of participant observation. Participant observation through experience allows the researcher to understand the motives and meanings behind peoples' behaviour; this is exactly what Goffman did, and as a result, his findings became more than just an academic publication - they became material for government policy reform. Goffman says of his work Asylums (1961) 'A chief concern is to develop a sociological version of the self' (Branaman & Lemert: 1997: p.xiii) and more specifically on the essay The Moral Career of the Mental Patient 'This paper, then, is an exercise in the institutional approach to the study of the self.' (Goffman: 1961: p.127). In his quest to understand the 'self' in a mental asylum, Goffman as researcher, actually became the research tool by taking on the role of participant observer. ...read more.

Middle

Goffman had access to the physical, verbal and expressive behaviour of the patients at the asylum. (Lecture2: 2005) By then combining his role as participant (understanding things form the subject's point of view) with his role as observer (possessing sociological insight) Goffman could reach a fuller understanding of events that the subject may not understand. (website: 2005: p.12) However, by not revealing himself as a researcher, Goffman immediately restricted his means of data collection: he could not for example arrange interviews or question people directly about their actions. Thus Goffman must have used considerable intellectual sophistication in order to gain information. (Lecture: 2005) Participant observation as a method does have its problems, one being the restriction to small-scale studies and the following lack of representativeness. (Website: 2005: p. 3.) In Goffmans case however, further studies and investigations yielded similar results and even led to reforms in the area of mental health care. Additionally there are downfalls to Goffman's use of covert participant observation, as opposed to overt participant observation. In a practical sense, because Goffman could not openly record data, he had to rely on his memory when writing his field diary at the end of each day. Thus any reader must trust that the researcher has correctly remembered and interpreted behaviour, events and experiences, something more difficult with covert participant observation due to restrictions in questioning. ...read more.

Conclusion

x). To conclude, Goffman's role as the researcher as participant observer in his work on asylums, was to actually become the research tool itself in a bid to understand the motives and meanings behind the patients' behaviour: 'to develop a sociological version of the structure of the self' (Branaman and Lemert: 1997: p. xiii). By using subjective sociology ( in the form of covert participant observation) Goffman avoided pre-judgement of the issue at hand, and afforded himself more flexibility in his research. Participant observation meant he could really get 'backstage' and obtain a rich, reliable and detailed pool of evidence. Goffman could match actual behaviour with past claims or statements, and by combining his roles of participant and observer, come to a clear understanding of the patients' actions. Inevitably there are disadvantages to this method, both practical and ethical such as the implications of small scale studies. I suggest that perhaps had Goffman been a patient rather than a member of staff he could have gained a much clearer understanding of the patients' viewpoint and structure of 'self'. Nonetheless, as other studies yielded similar and supporting results, and Goffman's study led to reforms in mental health care, this matter seems largely irrelevant now. Thus Goffman's role of participant observer made him not only the research tool, allowing him to accomplish his personal task of building an image of the structure of the 'self' (through experience), but also it seems turning him into a vehicle for reform. ...read more.

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