Parker’s participant observation describes ‘The Boys’ everyday lives but what else does it do? Critically consider the impact of the study and it’s relevance to theory, methodology, and policy. In this essay I will be looking at the observational study carried out by Howard Parker, ‘A View from the Boys’ (1947). In this study Parker covertly participated to find out about the lives of a gang of adolescent boys from Liverpool. The study was looking into the sub-culture aspect of crime and deviance with a strong hold of Functionalism.
Both the Functionalist and the sub-culture theories stress the learning of norms and values are crucial to the relation to crime committed. The sub-culture in Parker’s study focused on the behaviour and beliefs of the boys that he studied that differentiated them from the public generally. The sub-culture in a ‘View from the Boys’ came about due to the boys being in a gang and separating themselves from the rest of the public and engaging themselves in criminal behaviour. It is possible to see that it would have been difficult for Parker to have gained access to the group.
This is a difficult aspect of participant observation as the observer cannot go into a group without them being curious, which would affect their behaviour and would question the validity of the study. However, in Parkers case he was easily able to gain access as he had met some of the boys previously at a country holiday centre set up for Liverpool’s deprived children. In addition to this it was necessary that Parker would fit in with the boys. In saying this we would have to accept the fact that a female researcher wouldn’t have been able to fit in with the ‘boys’.
According to Parker, ‘If I had not been young, hairy, boozy, willing to keep long hours and accept permissive standards, the liaison would never have worked’. The study carried out by Parker has always been given great weight as it looks closely at participation observation and the effects that it may have. Throughout the study Parker deliberately kept his identity hidden as he knew that if he allowed his identity to be known then the boys might not accept him as part of the group and wouldn’t trust him.
He couldn’t allow this to happen as he wanted the boys to behave the way that would under normal circumstances and only then would he be able to get any real results. However, as Parker became ‘one’ of the boys the validity of the study was in question as it is possible to see that in the many times throughout the study he did stop the boys from committing crimes and therefore affecting the study. Due to his involvement in the gang he did many a times change their behaviour, not due to his presence but because of his actions as part of the gang.
For example, Parker occasionally stepped in when the gang members would try to steal cars and would stop them. At one point, he even provided legal advice to gang members charged with theft. It has been criticised that covert participation studies were not actually ethical as many times the researcher would have to act in a way that would be illegal or unethical. However, when Parker did engage in criminal behaviour, for example receiving stolen goods, he claimed that this involvement was necessary for the gang to carry on trusting him and accepting him into their activities on more of a daily basis.
It is seen by many that participation observation is the method of anthropology that is ‘concerned with all humans at all times and with all dimensions of humanity. ‘1 This has been used in a wide range of sociological studies already as when the researcher has ‘become part of a daily round, learning languages and meanings, rules of impersonal… and in short, living the life of the people under study. ‘ (Hughes, 1976). Analysing Parkers study it is possible to see that it allowed sociologists to take a closer look at the way that covert participant observation was carried out and the results that came from it.
It could be that at the time that Parker set out to look at the behaviour of the boys from Liverpool he also gave sociologists a chance to look at the advantages and disadvantages of participant observation. Parker argues that it would be best to observe the gang in their natural surroundings where they would behave as they normally would, ‘… because by visiting the deviants in prison, borstal and other ‘human zoos’ or by cornering them in classrooms to answer questionnaires, the sociologist misses meeting them as people in their normal society’.
This would be seen to be the major factor that sociologist would see when conducting a covert participant observation. Parkers’ statement has been supported by many other researchers and sociologists as it can be seen that in ‘Understanding Deviance’, the authors2 were in agreement with participant observation. They claimed that ‘social behaviour cannot be understood unless it is personally experienced… Sociologists who lean on external accounts and objective evidence can have no appreciation of why people act. ‘
Parker, as he carried out his study was consistent that he was receiving the highest standard of information about the boy’s everyday lives as he was part of it. He looked at the norms and values that the boys held for themselves and how this led them to behave in a certain way. This gave Parker an insight to the gang behaviour and allowed him to see the activities of a deviant sub-culture. Parker saw how the boy’s were seen as being working class delinquents and therefore accepted this and made it a self-fulfilling prophecy. While he was with the boys he observed how they would steal car radios and sell them on.
This would profit them as they would make money in a way that they were happy with. This, Merton, would claim would be done when they are denied access to the goals that society has set out for them, (which would mainly be materialistic) and they would develop substitute means to satisfy their needs. Walter Miller3 also uses working class boys who belong to a deviant sub-culture to argue that the social context that they are from is what leads them to adopt an exaggerated form of materialistic concerns. Miller believed that values are passed down from one generation to the next.
Miller argued that there were a certain set of concerns that set the behaviour that led the young to delinquency. Concerns such as wanting to appear tough, smart, and cause trouble were all seen to be true as Parker continued his study and found that the boys walked around town as though they did own the place. Miller did try, similarly to Parker; explain male, working class and youthful deviance. They both agreed that deviance was the result of a collective response and therefore recognised the social origins of deviance, simply by focusing on the socio-cultural factors.