The Participant Observer

Participant observation is concerned with interpreting the actions of others. It is not concerned whether it can or cannot be repeated. Researchers who use participant observation, interactions in particular, find this method allows them to study and observe the actions during the time of interaction. The participant observer studies the whole context of the group as they are interested in how their actions relate to symbols of the social.

Participant Observer, figures standing in groups

Also by being in the group, the observer may be able to study another culture, its language, norms and values. By studying a small group, the participant observer is able to conduct a more detailed and concise study. They can gain trust from the group as he or she is with them for a long period of time. They also have the opportunity to make valid observations by being in the ‘real social world’.

The may choose to adopt an overt or covert method.

By letting the group know that they are being observed. The observer risks influencing the behaviour of that group. Group members may act in a certain way just because they know they are being observed.

In Bill Whyte’s, 1943, Italian street gang study, one gang member was quoted as saying:

“You’ve slowed me down plenty since you’ve been here. Now, when I do something, I have to think what Bill Whyte would want to know about it and how can I explain it.”

Bill Whyte did not disclose to the group that he was conducting social research, he told them he was writing a book about street gangs. He joined the gang and became immersed in their lifestyle and culture, but he was still looked upon by the gang as an observer.

Bill Whyte admits, “To some extent my approach must be unique to itself, to the particular situation…”

But as an outsider could he understand their norms and values was he interpreting them correctly?

Then there is a danger of discovery and the event that would take place as the result of that discovery,

Whether the method of study is overt or covert, the question arises as to whether or not it is ethical. How far does the participant observer go in the name of research? If Bill Whyte were to witness a murder of another gang member, should he report it to the police or assist in covering up the evidence to protect his identity and his research.

For example, in W. Foote Whyte’s three-and-a-half-year study, “The Social Structure of an Italian Slum”.

The Social Structure of an Italian Slum

Whyte states, “I tried not to influence the group as I wanted the situation to be as unaffected by my presence as possible.’

Another difficulty with such a method is whether or not it is value free; can the researcher interpret the actions of the group correctly?

Another problem with this line of research is the sociologists understanding of cultural norms and values. For example, W. Liebow was a white Jew and in his study of “Negro Street Corner Men” in Washington DC, he states that, “There were assumptions by design, no firm presumptions of what or was not relevant”, and also that, “The disadvantage of being white was offset by the fact that, as an outsider, “I was no competitor, I had no vested interests”.

Aaron V. Cicourel studied juvenile justice. He maintained that official statistics could not be used as valid evidence for crime rates. He used an ethnomethodological approach to examine how youths become labelled as juvenile delinquents. He assumed that juvenile delinquency develops from “every day activities of police, probation officers and court officials in their interaction with juveniles”.

Behaviour is governed by constructed norms that people take for granted. These shared norms or shared realities only become apparent when the actors experience tension during social interactions, which results in conflict.

To uncover this assumption, Cicourel spent four years observing interactions in courts between juveniles, police, and probations officers. He was concerned with the way officials categorise juveniles. He paid close attention to the appearance, speech, and manner of juveniles.

The problem that arose from Circourel’s study was that of validity i.e. the taken for granted assumptions that are actually used by the actors concerned. He presented long extracts from conversations between probation officers and juveniles to allow the readers to judge for themselves.

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