Participant Observation Advantages and Disadvantages

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  • Participant Observation
    • Advantages
      • Validity
        • Actually observing - there's a rich source of qualitative data
        • This is the main strength
      • Insight
        • Experience it for ourselves for the best understanding
        • Gain empathy through personal experience
          • Gain insight into their way of life, their viewpoints, their values and problems
            • Uniquely valid, authentic data
      • Flexibility
        • It allows sociologists to enter the situation with an open mind about what they will find
          • Open-mindedness allows the researcher to discover things that other methods may miss
      • Practical Advantages
        • May be the only method for studying certain groups, especially those engaged in activities that wider society sees as deviant
          • A teenage gang is likely to see to see researchers who come armed with a questionnaire as the unwelcome representatives of authority
          • A rapport can be built and can gain trust of the members
    • Disadvantages
      • Practical Disadvantages
        • Very time consuming
        • The researcher needs to be trained so as to be able to recognise aspects of a situation that are sociologically significant
        • It can be personally stressful and demanding, especially if covert
        • Requires observational and interpersonal skills that not everyone has
        • Many groups may not wish to be studied this way and some make access difficult
      • Ethical Problems
        • Covert participant observation raised ethical difficulties
          • Deceiving people in order to obtain information about them
          • Participating in illegal or immoral activities in the course of their sociological research
      • Representativeness
        • The group studied is usually very small
          • This does not provide a sound basis for making generalisations
      • Reliability
        • It is unlikely any other investigator would be able to replicate the original study
        • Because participant observation usually produces qualitative data, this can make comparisons with other studies difficult
        • Positivists, who see sociology as scientific, thus reject participant observation as an unsystematic method that cannot be replicated by other researchers

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