Sociology: Observations

  • Created by: wika0821
  • Created on: 20-06-21 16:54

Types of observations

Participant observation (PO) -> the researcher joins the group they are studying, taking part in their activities and daily lives.

Non-participants observation -> the researcher avoids direct contact with the participants and observes them from a distance.

Overt observation -> the researcher explains their research to the group as well as their intentions so that they know they're being observed.

Covert observation -> the researcher keeps their study and identity a secret. If participating, they join the group and pretend to be a real member.

Structured observation -> the researcher systematically classifies the behaviour they witness into different categories.

Unstructured observation -> the researcher simply observes and writes down what they see.

Inter. tend to use overt or covert participant observations in an unstructured manner.

Pos. tend to use structured non-participant observation. 

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Participant observation

POs vary between studies. Typical characteristics include:

- The researcher finds a role within the group that allows them to observe behaviour.

- Observations are recorded in field notes.

- The research takes years of fieldwork.

- Sociologists begin the study with an open mind and research ideas and topics emerge during the study.

- They can be covert or overt.

Inter. use PO because they want to find out meanings social actors give to situations. By observing individuals first hand (for a long period of time) they can discover their genuine thoughts and feelings. People can often say one thing and do something else, PO allows researchers to witness this.

POs produce large amounts of highly valid qualitative data. 

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Advantages of POs

They're a naturalistic approach -> the group is in its natural setting and so it acts normally, unaffected by the sociologist's presence. This makes the data high in validity.

Authenticity -> observing a group provides the researcher with more clear detail about them than asking questions could. The researcher does not know if people are being honest when answering questions. As POs last a long time, individuals can grow more comfortable and slowly become more honest and often.

It is an open research process -> POs are a flexible approach that is led by the participants and not the researcher. This allows for more ideas to be developed during the study.

PO offers insight -> by partaking in a group, the researcher can see 'what's beneath the surface. Structured methods (e.g questionnaires) tend to skim over the surface instead of developing a deep understanding of behaviour.

The data produced are rich in detail -> recorded observations are genuine and authentic + there is a lot of data collected due to the length of the study.

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Advantages of POs

POs allow closed groups to be studied -> some groups are difficult to study (e.g gangs) and may only be accessed through covert PO.

Research opportunity -> It is flexible and takes little preparation. If an opportunity arises, the researcher can grab it and join the group.

Flexibility-> if a new issues, idea or question arises during the study, POs can be adjusted to research the,. Structured forms cannot do this once the study has begun e.g surveys cannot be edited once participants have started to fill them in.

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Disadvantages of POs

They are unreliable and unrepresentative:

- Pos. believes POs are unscientific as they are a form of constantly adapting open-ended research. 

- There is no standardisation or system to make measurements.

- They are extremely difficult/ impossible to replicate.

- POs give control to participants and without standardised questioning, they become entirely unreliable.

- They're often 'one-off' studies on small groups that are unrepresentative. Consequently, generalisations cannot be made from the findings.

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Problems with validity and POs

Although Inter. claim that POs are high in validity, this is not always the case:

Hawthorne effect -> the presence of the researcher is likely to change the behaviour of the group (especially during overt observations). Even during cover research, groups are likely to change their behaviour around newcomers.

Going native -> the observer can be influenced by the group, they may over-identify with them. This risks them developing a bias and would likely affect their interpretation of any findings.

Interpretation problems -> The researcher cannot be sure if they have understood events in the same way the group has. 

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Ethical issues and POs

During covert POs, the group is manipulated and misled to believe that they have welcomed a new person to their group.

They are observed without their consent.

The researcher may be in danger e.g if they get found out they may be harmed.

The socialist may witness/ be forced to partake in illegal activities to avoid blowing their cover.

When researching small groups, it can be hard to ensure everyone remains anonymous when publishing.

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Practical problems and POs

Getting in -> joining the target group may be difficult/ impossible.

Staying in -> POs can last many years. This is especially difficult during covert OPs as the researcher will have to maintain a false identity. Furthermore, having to wait to write down notes diminishes the validity of the data as e.g the researcher may have misremembered details.

Getting out -> can be extremely difficult if emotional bonds were formed or the sociologist witnessed something that would put the group in danger, etc. 

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Overt and covert PO compared


Overt PO - There may be issues surrounding protecting the participant's identity.

Covert PO - The sociologists do not have the informed consent of the individuals.


Overt PO - May be denied if the group refuses to take part.

Covert PO - It is hard to gain entry e.g the sociologist needs to have similar characteristics as the group i.e same age, gender, etc.


Overt PO - Easy to retain membership once accepted into the group.

Covert PO - Constant risk of being caught + constant danger.

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Overt and covert PO compared


Overt PO - can openly ask questions and clarify points. This increases validity.

Covert PO - Has to be careful to not raise suspicions = cannot ask direct questions and may misinterpret answers. This decreases the validity of the data.


Overt PO - Members may act differently due to the Hawthorne effect. This decreases validity.

Covert PO - If the group is not suspicious, they are likely to act normal. This increases validity. 

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Evaluation of PO

POs are low in reliability and representativenss.

Inter. are interested in validity and so they favour this method.

However, it is never certain if all the data is completely valid.

Its main strength is that it allows studying groups that can be hard to access. 

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Structured observation

This method uses a schedule to identify and measure patterns of behaviour.

Before the study, the sociologists decides how they will categorise behaviour. 

These categories are coded so that the findings can be easily counted and turned into statistics.

Recording the observation can take place every couple of seconds.

It is hard for the researcher to hide that they are using such a schedule and so these studies are often overt. 

Pos. favour this method because it uses a scientific and standardised approach to gather quantitative data.

These results can be used to find cause-and-effect relationships.

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Advantages and disadvantages of SO


Reliability -> they are highly reliable as the study can be treated by other researchers using the same fixed categories each time.

Comparing data -> this is easy to do as the findings are collected quickly and measured in a simple way (e.g the frequency or duration is counted). This allows them to be compared directly and so patterns and relationships to be picked out.


Loss of validity -> counting frequency/ duration does not reveal the meaning of the event / events may not fit categories or overlap several / different observes may place the same events into different categories / the observer cannot see and record everything that is happening.

Other problems -> they're only useful when studying small-scale interactions + it is an intensive method of research. 

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SO to study education

Using structured observation to study education:

Practical issues -> (strengths) they're simple to carry out within classrooms as they are a closed environment. The researcher can sit and that back and record the behaviours. The short durations of lessons mean that they do not get tired. The simplicity of this method means that it is quicker, cheaper and requires far less training than most methods. HOWEVER -> some school situations (e.g playground activity) is too complex to record and categorise. 

Reliability -> the range of behaviours within a classroom is limited. Therefore few categories can be easily established and the method is easy to replicate. SO produced quantitative data which is easy to compare.

Validity -> Inter. believe SO lack validity. Counting classroom behaviour and classifying it into a limited number of pre-determined categories ignores the meanings attached by pupils and teachers.

Observer presence -> Hawthorne effect, the observer can be seen as off-putting and change the behaviour of students and teachers. 

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PO to study education

Using participant observation to study education:

Validity -> participant observations can overcome status differences and encourage students to be accepting of the researcher. This increases validity. However, students and teachers alike are skilled at changing their behaviour when observed. This makes it difficult for the sociologist to know if the behaviour is authentic.

Practical issues -> schools are complex, it can take a researcher weeks/ months to understand how it functions. Observations are less disruptive than interviews so they are more likely to receive permission to conduct them. However, observations are limited to the school timetable which is incredibly busy with weekends, holidays and exam weeks. Furthermore, schools are busy so it can be very difficult to record observations.

Ethical issues -> students are more vulnerable than adults and cannot give informed consent, this means that observations within classrooms have to be overt. Ethical issues arise when protecting the school's identity, a poor public image caused by the findings could harm the children's education. 

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PO to study education

The Hawthorne effect -> there are few roles a researcher can disguise themself as due to the fact that they are much older than the students. Consequently, observations have to be overt and HE is inevitable. Teachers and students may be suspicious of the sociologist and change their behaviour.

Representativeness -> POs in schools can only be carried out on a very small scale. The education system is incredibly large, this makes it impossible to achieve representative findings with this particular method.

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