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Participant Observation

  • Participant Observation: Involves a researcher actually joining the group/ community they are studying and participating in it activites over a period of time. The researcher then tries to become accepted part of the group to see the world the way the members of the group do

-Venkatesh: American sociologist- Spent 18 months, spread 7 years participating in the life of chicago crack-dealing gang, part of his work in poverty on the US= He was able to gain insights into the lives of drug-dealing members,crack-heads, squatters,police officers and others

-The Theoretical context: Typically used by Interpretivists to develop an understanding of the world from the POV of the subjects of the research. Interpretivists argue: Sociological understanding can only be gained by understanding people's meanings- Researchers putting themselves in the same position as those being studied. Rather than testing hypotheses against evidence, verstehen and qualitative research really what sociology is about

  • Stages of Participant Observation: Getting in, staying out, getting out- These stages and the success of PO, rely on a great deal on the personality skills of the researcher, they have to be adaptable enough to be accepted
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Participant Observation: The Stages

  • Participant Observation: 

1. Getting in: Researcher may adopt a Overt role- Whereby the researcher reveals to the group being studied there identity & purpose (openess &honesty enocourage trust, able to ask questions,informed consent). BUT: Covert role- Concealing their roles as a reseacher (little choice but to become a full participent,diffilicult to take notes, moral & ethical concerns) After deciding- Getting access to group, presence of a stranger needs explanation, researcher needs to establish "bona fide" credentials for getting access to the group, getting permission from higher authorities

2. Staying in: Observer has to develop a role which will involve gaining the trust & cooperation, "Intially keep your eyes & ears open, but your mouth shut"- Doc's advice to Whyte in "Street corner Society".Problems with SI: Need for extensive note-taking, can disrupt behaviour, Maintaining trust involve getting involved with acts researcher might not agree with (criminal behaviour) Whyte: Did some "personating" illeagly voting twice in an ellection, Venkatesh: Colluded in gang violence, took part in beating up the boyfriend of an abused teenager

3. Getting out: Involves issues like- Leaving the group without damaging relationships, becoming sufficiently detached to write an impartial account, may be possible reprisals, Patricks: Research on Glasgow Gang using covert role, he faced threats to his personal safety

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Participant Observation: Case studies

  • PO Case studies:

1. William Foote Whyte- "Street corner society": Study of an Italian- American street corner gang in Bostan,Whyte spent 3 years and half years in an area as PO, became a member of the gang 

2. Laud Humphrey,Tearoom Trade- "Impersonal sex in public places": Humphery wanted to study the gay subculture and observed the sexual activity of gay men in 90 public toilets. Adapted a covert role as a "gay ******" and a "watch-queen" Humphery became adapted part of gay scene in Chicago. Adopting a overt role, interviewed some men

3.James Patrick- "A Glasgow Gang Observed": Used a covert role to study a violence and delinquent teenage gang over a period of 4 months

4. Sudhir Venkatesh- "Gang leader for a day": Venkatesh spent 18 months, spread over 7 years, participating in the life of the "Black Kings"-Chicago crack dealing gang, adopting a overt role, he observed much illeagal and violent behaviour

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Participant Observation: Evaluation

  • Participant Observation:

-Advantages: Sociologists gain first hand knowledge by building relationship- more in depth valid data, Allow hypotheses and theories to emerge: Whyte: Noted in "Street corner society"- "As I sat and listened, i learned the answers to questions that I would not even had the sense to ask if I had been getting my info soley on an interviewing basis", Best way to get the meanings- seeing the world through the eyes of members, possible method of research-researching criminial, People can be studied in their normal social situations, rather than a artificial "snapshot"

-Disadvantages: Positivists argue: Problems with validity and reliability- no real evidence, no real way of checking findings,even direct quotations are often written down later, may be only partially recalled, Positivist claim: This method depends too heavily on the personal characteristics and personaility of the researcher, creating in-built bias, Presence of researcher- Change the groups behaviour- Hawthorne effect, validity. Whyte admitts: "That knowledge of his presence and intentions may well have changed the behaviour of the gang. Danger of becoming so involved-diffilcult to report findings= Going native, becoming so involved all attatchment is lost, Very time consuming and expensive compared to other methods, Only small group being studied- not representative, diffilcult to make genralizations. Ethical issues: No informed consent. CS

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