Research Methods

Participant Observation

Observation is typically favoured by interactionist sociologists who seek to gain ‘verstehen’ or ‘true understanding’ in their research. As the name suggests, it involves watching the target population and noting the features under investigation. In participant observation the researcher becomes part of the community they are studying. This can involve a great deal of time considering how best to access the group (for example in Paul Willis’s study of ‘the lads’ he gained a job in their school). There are occasions where sociologists are accusing of ‘going native’ and losing their objectivity as they become more and more involved with the group they are studying.

Below is a link to an accessible account of participant observation in relation to the study of crime. It is illustrated throughout with references to empirical research that provides a great source of wider reading opportunities for learners:.

Discover More Participant Observation and Crime

Students could read through the overview provided before considering the following questions:

  • Why might a researcher of gangs, for example, not reveal their real name either at the time of study or when writing up the work?

  • If a researcher employs covert participant observation, are they obliged to take part in all the observed group’s activities?

  • What ethical dilemmas are involved in the research you have just read about?

  • To what extent should a researcher protect those being observed/researched?

Taken from a social psychology website, the link below contains ideas and suggestions for social norms which could be broken. Students are tasked with choosing a norm to break – this in itself prompts some interesting class discussion about what would and would not be useful/appropriate – care and guidance should be exercised here. This is an example of participant observation as the student researcher is a participant in the environment they are studying and then observing the people in that environment.

Discover More Social Psychology Network

If you scroll down on the website the information, you will see some clear directions for students on the write-up of this task – this is essentially the focus of the activity. Students are a participant in the environment they have chosen and must record the reactions of others.


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