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All methods involve observation, but P.O. is characterized by the extent to which its advocates insist on observation and interpretation of a situation, informed by an understanding of the situation from the point of view of the participants rather than the observer. An attempt is made to avoid imposing categories from outside.
P.O. is the method of anthropology, although it is used in a wide range of sociological studies when the researcher has 'become part of a daily round, learning languages and meanings, rules of impersonal, relations... and in short, living the life of the people under study.' (Hughes, 1976).
The emphasis is on qualitative research, where the social meanings of the actors is the basis for explaining their actions. In the past a frequently overlooked method, devalued possibly by concern over its ability to meet strict criteria of scientific adequacy. This resistance to P.O. comes particularly from sociologists who have tended to see the social sciences in a positivist framework.
Kluckholm (1940) defines P.O. as:
'...a conscious and systematic sharing, in so far as circumstances permit, in the life activities, and on occasion, in the interests and effects of a group of persons. Its purpose is to obtain data about behaviour through direct contact and in terms of specific situations, in which, the distortion that results from the investigator being an outside agent is reduced to a minimum.'
What this implies is that a researcher should try to avoid altering the groups direction, although s/he may influence the immediate content. For example, in Parker's study, View from the Boys (1974), which was a study of Liverpool adolescents, the researcher persuaded the boys to postpone a theft, but did not try to alter the overall direction of the gang by trying to persuade them not to commit crime. Ideally, P.O. requires sharing without disturbing the sentiments and experiences of people in social situations.
There is, however, a certain vagueness concerning the exact nature of P.O. in terms of the method itself. Fletcher notes that the observer 'does his training in the field.'
Moser claims that 'participant observation is a highly individual technique.'
Patrick, in his study of the Glasgow Gang, expected to have to play it by ear. It is very much a 'suck it and see approach'.
From a positivist point of view, this vagueness in the matter of the method of investigation is seen as a disadvantage. Certainly, reliability would be difficult to claim, but vagueness may also be viewed as an example of the flexibility of P.O. Also, there is the possibility that a research opportunity might just suddenly occur and there is little time to prepare or structure a study.
The participation and observation elements of P.O. can vary to adapt to the research focus. Gold, Rules in Sociological Field Observation (1958), proposed a four fold classification:
- The complete observer.
- The participant as observer.
- The observer as participant.
- The complete participant.
The Complete Observer
In this role there is no joining in by the observer. This method is seldom used other than for systematic eavesdropping or gaining an initial grasp of a situation. There is the strong possibility that an adequate basis for understanding is not provided.
The Participant as Observer
With this role, researcher and informant are aware that theirs is a research relationship and role pretence is minimised. The observer's activities are not wholly concealed, but they are played down while s/he gets on with participating. This situation is facilitated if the researcher has a participant who befriends him/her, and who can therefore support the research.
A danger with this role is that informants may become so identified with the researcher that they become observers themselves. This may induce changes in the behaviour of the group. Similarly, there is the danger that the researcher may go native - that is to identify with the group so strongly that s/he may cease to function as an observer.
The Observer as Participant
This role is associated mainly with studies involving one-visit interviews when some formal observation may be possible. While this role avoids any problems that may arise from longer involvement, it carries the obvious risk of generating only a superficial understanding.
The Complete Participant
The true identity and motives of the researcher are not made known to the people with whom they are participating, and who are being observed for research purposes.
There are two main problems with this approach; that the researcher may be so concerned not to break cover that s/he does not perform convincingly in the assumed role, and that the researcher may become so involved that they go native. Furthermore, in this role the researcher is not achieving the aim of total neutrality as their membership of the group lends support to that group.
Participant observers aim to become an unobtrusive part of the scene, non-threatening to the participants, and become 'taken for granted' by the participants. Some researchers emphasise the need to move slowly into the group setting. For example, Liebow spent four weeks hanging about on an irregular basis in the cafes of 'Tally's Corner' in order to penetrate the world of a group of black men who hung about on a street corner.
Entry is made easier when the researcher has a contact in the group (a sponsor), who invites the researcher into the group. Other researchers have used disguise in order to penetrate a group. For example, Festinger equipped four observers with fake stories about psychic experiences in order to join an exclusive cult. Much depends on the researchers personality and the way in which his/her front is acceptable to the group under observation. Parker (View from the Boys) found entry easy and rapid, possibly because he was 'young, hairy, boozy, etc, willing to keep long hours.'
The observer has to come to terms with a complete set of norms, relationships and activities, and try to understand the meanings these hold for the people involved. The researcher, therefore, requires skill in questioning, watching, listening. In the early days of the research s/he may not be able to ask too many direct questions. Whyte, in his study of Cornerville, was advised to lay off asking questions and to simply hang around so that, in the long run, he would get answers without even having to ask the questions.
In some cases, researchers take on a particular role among their subjects, as a vantage point for observation, but this can be limiting, or very uncomfortable if it ties you into the conventions and obligations of the group. When a group's behaviour borders on deviance, it may pose moral problems for the observer. It might be possible to avoid becoming involved in criminal activity of a direct kind yet still retain a contact with criminal groups. For example, Parker would keep dixy (watch) and receive knock off but would not become involved in the act of stealing.
Failure to accept the group norms can lead to rejection by the group as Patrick discovered when he refused to join in a pub brawl with the rest of the gang he was researching. He was roundly abused by the gang for his lack of support for them.
A long-term problem with P.O. is observer fatigue. Such research may be physically tiring and mentally exhausting, particularly if you have to keep up a pretence about who you really are.
This is always a problem whether the study is overt or covert. Exiting is a neglected area of research reports, although the method, timing, and manner of exiting varies considerably. Patrick left the gang suddenly, no longer being able to accept their violence, whereas Whyte's subjects arrange a farewell party for him.
A more serious consideration is when does research reach a conclusion? The whole essence of P.O. is social life as an ongoing accomplishment, how do you decide that the 'story' has reached an end? P.O. is like 'modern, slice of life' novels; no conclusion, just an exit.
Realistically, the end of research is more likely to be: the finance is about to stop, my PHD has got to be completed, I can't stand any more of this. The ending is fabricated. The researcher imposes an end. These people have got lives, families, careers. The ending has to be fraudulent but understandable.
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