Positivists believe that only science can provide the objective ‘truth’ or facts about the world. Positivist sociologists believe that human behaviour is determined by social facts and these are the way societies are organised. They therefore believe that sociology should be a scientific discipline based on the logic and methods of the natural sciences. The job of sociologists, according to positivists, is to uncover the social laws that govern human behaviour. The major scientific method used by positivists is the social or sample survey, which incorporates the use of the questionnaire and/or the structured interview. Positivists also advocate the use of some types of secondary data, particularly official statistics.
However, positivists claim that participant observation is unscientific and therefore not very useful because the presence of outsiders may bring about artificial behaviour in respondents. Positivists claim observation lacks objectivity because many researchers ‘go native’. Objectivity is also lost because of the need to be selective. What is selected depends upon the sociologist’s interpretation of what is important. Observation is difficult to replicate because it’s unsystematic and its results are rarely quantified. Finally, it is difficult to generalise from such studies because the samples are so small.
Interpretists would use participant observation as it allows the researcher to fully join the group and see things through the eyes (and actions) of the people in the group. This can often lead to completely new insights and generate new theoretical ideas which are also good for validity. One of the problems with questionnaires, and to a lesser extent with interviews, is that the respondent can lie. Participant observation prevents this because the researcher can see the person’s actual behaviour. This leads to high levels of validity. Participant observation can create a close bond between the researcher and the group under study, and individuals in the group may be prepared to confide in the researcher which makes it excellent for validity. Participant observation takes place over a period of time and allows an understanding of how changes in attitudes and behaviour take place which is again a raise in validity. Participant observation is normally used to obtain research information on hard-to-reach groups, such as drug users, gangs and offenders. Participant observation scores very highly for validity.
Positivists would argue that participant observation can lead to bias. This is because the observer can be drawn into the group and start to see things through their eyes. This loses objectivity and therefore validity. The presence of the researcher may make the group act less naturally as they are aware of being studied, unless the researcher is operating covertly which can lead to the ethical issue of deception. Other problems with ethics include how far the researcher should allow themselves to be drawn into the activities of the group – particularly if these activities are immoral of illegal. Positivists would argue that there is no way of knowing whether the findings of participant observations are true or not, since there is no possibility of replicating the research. In other words, the results may lack reliability. Participant observation is usually used to study small groups of people who are not typical of the wider population. It is therefore difficult to claim that the findings can be generalised across the population as a whole. Most (participant) observational studies are concerned with the least powerful groups in society. Positivists would argue, what about the powerful and their activities? Positivists would score participant observation low for reliability and generalisability.
One study that uses participant observation is Eileen Barker’s making of a moonie. She used a mixture of interviews and participant observations. This gave her access into a religious sect that was getting very bad publicity at the time and a chance to find out the truth behind the ‘moonies’. At first she sat and watched and listened and then she began to join in the conversations and finally, she began to learn the social language used by the moonies and to she began to participate more in the groups activities. This allowed her to gain the trust of certain members of the group who provided her with a lot of useful information and insights into the rest of the group. As Eileen never pretended to be a member she was allowed to ask questions that no member would have asked their leaders. Many of the members also found it easier to confide in her as she was unemotionally uninvolved. And because she just listened she found herself collecting lots of ‘classified’ information without even asking for it. This gave the study validity as there was no need for the members to lie to her. Interpretivists would like this as Eileen got to look into the meaning behind the religious sect and the meaning behind why they were there, the meaning behind the moonies.
Another study which used participant observation was James Patrick’s a Glasgow gang observed. A 16 year old juvenile offender, Tim, invited James to find out what it was like to be part of the gang. James pretended to be Tim’s friend and he had to change his clothes and speech to make sure that he ‘looked’ like part of the gang. The gang destroyed a library while James was stood on guard duty outside. This is problematic ethically as it was a criminal activity and James could have been arrested even for being on guard duty. The gang also took drugs which James had to do if he wanted to be convincing as a gang member. He also got involved with the rivalry between gangs which could have cost him his life had a serious fight broken out as the gang members tended to carry a knife. Positivists would use this study to point out the ethics involved with this type of method especially the use of deception and becoming involved with criminal activity, however, interpretivists would argue that it allowed them to get a lot of detailed information about a hard-to-reach group they would never have had access to otherwise.
Today, observation tends to be used in conjunction with quantitative methods as part of a triangulation approach.