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How do we really find out about the way of life of a group of people? One way is to join them to
participate in their daily activities & observe what they say and do. This research method is known as
It was used by John Howard Griffin (1960) a white journalist who dyed his skin black in order to
discover what it was like to live as black man in the southern states of America in the late 1950's. It was
used by the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski who spent many years studying the Trobriand
Islanders of New Guinea. He observed the most intimate details of their lives as he peered into grass
huts gathering data for Sex and Repression in Savage Society (1927). And it was used by the sociologist
Erving Goffman (1968) when he adopted the role of assistant to the athletics director in order to study
the experience of patients in a mental hospital in Washington DC.
Participant observation is one of the main research methods used in ethnography. Ethnography is the
study of the way of life a group of people their culture and the structure of their society. Often
researchers attempt to `walk a mile in their shoes' to see the worlds from their perspective, discover
their meanings & appreciate their experiences. Many argue that participant observation is the most
effective method of doing this.
Participant observation gives the researchers the opportunity to observe people in their natural setting
as opposed to the more artificial contexts of the laboratory or the interview. It allows researchers to see
what people do as opposed to what they say they do.
Participant observation has produced a number of classic ethnographies Elliot Liebow's (1967) study
of Black `street corners' men in Washington DC William f. Whyte's (1955) account of an
ItalianAmerican gang in Boston and a range of anthropological studies of small scale non Western
societies from the Yanomamo of Amazonia (Chagnon, 1968) to the Mbuti of Zaire (Turnbull, 1961).
Participant observation cannot work unless the researcher gains entry into the group & some degree of
acceptance from its members. This can be difficult. Many groups don't want to be studied, especially
those whose activities are seen as deviant or criminal by the wider society. However, as the following
examples indicate, it is often possible to enter even closed groups.
For his research into casual sex between men in public toilets the `tearoom trade' Humphreys (1970)
acted as a lookout. By performing this useful and accepted role, he gained the trust of those he
observed without having to join their sexual activities.
On other occasions, researchers have to participate more directly in order to gain entry. Dick Hobbs
(1988) wanted to research the relationship between criminals & detectives in the East End of London. He
agreed to a coach a local soccer team when he discovered that Simon, a detective was the father of one
of the players. He developed a friendship with Simon who provided him with introductions & vouched
for him (said he was OK). Hobbs also drank in The Pump, a local pub that was frequented by several
detectives. These contacts enabled Hobbs to gain entry into the world of the detectives he joined
their conversations & observed their activities.
Sometimes researchers are forced into even greater participation to gain entry. Festinger (1964) found
that the only way to observe a small religious sect was to pretend to be a believer & become a member
of the sect.
The above examples are of covert research where the identity & purpose of the researcher are kept
hidden. Overt researcher, where those being studied are aware of the researcher's role and purpose, has
its own problems of access and acceptance. People often reject what they see as nosy, interfering
outsiders, unless they are sponsored by a trusted member of the group who grants the researcher entry.
This happened in Judith Okely's (1983) study of travellergypsies. Entry was a long and difficult
process until she gained the friendship and trust of a family who had recently suffered a tragic death.
The sympathetic and understanding relationship she developed with members of this family provided
entry to rest of the group.
Looking and listening Participant observation involves looking and listening. The general rule is to `go
with the flow' rather than forcing the pace and influencing peoples behaviour. Since the aim is to
observe people in their normal setting, the research must not disturb that setting. Blending into the
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For example, a participant
observer in a classroom can stand out like a sore thumb. This can result in an `artificial' lesson.
However, its surprising how soon he or she becomes invisible and taken for granted. In his study of a
secondary school, Walford (1933) found that it took four weeks of observation before any class
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By watching and listening, a participant observer has the chance to discover the priorities and
concerns, the meanings and definitions of people in their everyday situations. There may therefore be
less likelihood of distorting people's view of the world.
Practicality Sometimes participant observation may be the only method with any chance of success.
Some groups are closed to outsiders their members reject requests for information.…read more
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Laud Humphreys (1970) argues that covert participant observation is
the only practical way to observe the `tearoom trade' causal sexual encounters between gay men in
public toilets. He justifies his research because it destroys various harmful myths eg, straight people
are not drawn into gay sex and it shows that gays are not a threat to society and that extensive police
surveillance is therefore unnecessary.
Positivism From a positive viewpoint, participant observation has its uses.…read more