The Usefulness of Participant Observation as a Sociological Method

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The Usefulness of Participant Observation as a Sociological Method

Unlike other research methods participant observation allows the

sociologist to look at people in their natural environment. It is

often referred to as a naturalistic approach. The research does not

artificially interfere with people’s lives and they are free to act as

normal. This allows the researcher to gain an insight which surveys

cannot produce. This is illustrated by a well-known quote: “As I sat

and listened, I learned the answers to questions I would not have the

sense to ask if I had been getting my information solely on an

interview basis.” By W.F. Whyte, “street corner society” 1981.

The kind of data produced by participant observation is qualitative,

that is to say it is a picture of the world through the eyes of people

themselves, whether they be members of a religious movement, a gang of

delinquents or a group of school pupils. If the researcher can

prevent their presence from altering behaviour then the data should

also be a valid picture of the group’s behaviour.

For some types of research there may be no good alternative to

participant observation. Certain deviant groups or behaviour would

not be possible to study using any other method. Participant

observation is particularly effective if a clearly identifiable group

is being studied who are prepared to have an observer present, this

allows observation of social behaviour in a natural setting in small

scale situations.

Further advantages of the usefulness of participant observation are

that it tackles a number of sensitive situations that a scientific

approach of surveys and question...

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the research process being very time consuming and expensive there is

a problem of access to the group, staying in the group and leaving the

group and yet there leaves further areas of social life which cannot

be observed.

To evaluate the usefulness of participant observation I would say that

despite the various issues that need to be addressed participant

observation can be a worthwhile part of research, exploring various

issues and providing a true picture of what is being studied.

However, I would say that the observer would need use triangulation to

incorporate other forms of research in order to come to an accurate

conclusion. For example quantitative information from secondary data

such as official statistics to make generalisations and identify

trends and patterns to reach a more objective conclusion.
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