Assess the Usefulness of Participant Observation in Sociological Research

In: Social Issues

Submitted By ellegildea
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Participant Observation is a method of data collection that takes advantage of the human ability to empathise. Unlike other research methods participant observation allows the sociologist to look at people in their natural environment. Participant observation is often associated with qualitative research, although the use of observation is not confined to researchers advocating any particular methodological approach. Sociologists such as Ned Polsky and Nigel Fielding have used participant observation to research different topics. This essay will explore the usefulness of the use of participant observation in sociological research, and its drawbacks. One of the most important decisions that participant observers have to make is how to approach the social group they wish to join. They can either choose to be a covert or an overt participant observer. A covert participant observer will declare their true identity and purpose whereas an overt participant observer will keep this hidden. Whilst some researchers choose to only be partially open, others strongly advocate being open from the start and argue that it is both morally and practically the best way to carry out participant observation. Ned Polsky suggests that it is morally correct to be truthful and that the research can easily be ruined if the covert participant observer is uncovered. However, leading overt research can sometimes have its drawbacks as the group may behave artificially so as to present themselves in a better light to the observer. Nigel Fielding [1993] argues that he would not have been able to conduct his study of the National Front without conducting covert research, due to the members' hostility towards sociology. Similarly, Patrick 1973 had to keep his name secret as he feared for his personal safety when studying violent Glasgow gangs, as did William Chambliss [1978] whilst studying organised…...

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