Participant observation is where the researcher joins in with the group she or he is studying.
This method is usually favoured by interpretivists as they can understand the meaning behind the behaviour of the group they observe. By putting themselves in the shoes of the participants they can understand why people act in certain ways. This could be particularly helpful in understanding behaviour which is very removed from our normal lives, for example gang behaviour.
There are two types of observation, covert and overt. In a covert observation the participants do not know you are observing them for research. In overt observations the participants do.
- You get a primary source of data. It’s first-hand information which hasn’t been interrupted by anyone else.
- The participants are likely to develop a relationship with the researcher so are more likely to be truthful and honest
- You gain rich, insightful qualitative data as you are effectively finding out more information the whole time you are observing the participants
- Gaining entry to the group and being accepted by the other members of the group can be difficult
- The presence of the researcher may affect the behaviour of the group. This is also known as the Hawthorne effect and is a big problem with overt observations
- The observations may lack structure, this means the quality of the observations by sociologist rely upon their skill as an observer.
- This lack of structure also makes the method unreliable as it is difficult to replicate
- Only a small number can be observed at one time, this could mean the sample may be unrepresentative
- There are also ethical issues, especially with covert observations as you will normally have to lie to the participants to ensure you remain undercover