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The Usefulness of Participant Observation as a Sociological Method Essay

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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...


... middle of paper ...


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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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