In Research All sociological research methods involve observation, however, participant observations is defined by when the researcher themselves participates in the activities of those he or she is observing and studying. Hughes (1976), describes participant observation as, ‘ When the researcher becomes part of a daily round, learning languages and meanings, rules of impersonal, relations… and in short, living the life of the people under study. 1 Participant observations come in two forms, overt participant observations, in which, the researcher informs the groups members about the purpose of the research and othe details, and there is covert participant observations, in which, the researcher joins the group without informing the members, the research is carried out secretly and the members of the group are unaware they are being studied.
This in itself can raise many issues. When carrying out participant observations, whether covert or overt, there are many problems that can occur, including time, cost, bias, replication, generalisation, validity, reliability and ethical issues. An important aspect when carrying out participant observations is that the researcher must observe people in their natural settings, the researcher must not disturb that setting. In Parker’s study (View from the Boys 1974)2, of Liverpool adolescents, the researcher persuaded the boys to no commit a crime at the time, but did not stop them committing the crime ideally.
This brings about many issues. For example, in participant observations, the researcher, as stated, should just observe. Parker broke this rule by convincing the boys not to steal at that moment. His intervention changed the behaviour of the boys, therefore any results can be said to be inaccurate as the group was not behaving as it would have if Parker was not present. Additionally, it raises ethical issues.
He knew the boys would commit the crime later on, but because of his research, he couldn’t call the police or punish them, therefore to what extent did the means of the study justify the means. Another disadvantage of using participant observations is the time, money and personal cost it entails. Participant observations can be done over a number of months, during which the researcher is usually cut off from the support of their family and friends, giving them personal stress.
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