Assess the usefulness of participant observation as a research method for sociologists.

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Assess the usefulness of participant observation as a research method for sociologists. Ensure you use source material in your answer.

Participant observation is where the sociologist joins a group of people and studies their behaviour while participating in the same activities. It can be covert (the group don’t know they are being observed and see the sociologist as another member of the group) or overt (the group are aware they are being observed).

Interpretists study society by looking at the individuals within the society and then working up to the society as a whole. They believe that society is the product of interaction - meaning when people come together in social groups. Interpretivists prefer methods such as unstructured interviews and observation because these uncover the meanings behind action and emphasise validity. Such methods attempt to see the social world through the eyes of the people who inhabit it by studying their everyday life or by letting those being studied speak for themselves. Interpretivist sociologists believe that it is only by participating fully in the activities of the group that they are studying that they can understand the subject’s point of view, their cultural meanings etc. They believe that participant observation is more useful than other methods because it is naturalistic. Behaviour is observed in its everyday setting. Experiments and social surveys, on the other hand, they believe are superficial. Trust and rapport can be established resulting in valid data. Observation does not impose the researchers definition of what is important on those being studied. Observation may uncover taken-for-granted assumptions by observing what people actually do rather than what they say they do.

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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 ...

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