Participant observation is where the researcher joins the group or community they are studying, the researcher will participate in the activities over a period of time, to do this, the researcher attempts to become accepted in order to collect more valid research and to try and see the world in the way the group does. There are two types of participant observation, Covert and Overt.
Covert participant observation is where the researcher will take an undercover role in order to do research into the group they wish to study, there is normally a ‘gate keeper’ within this group that knows the researcher is there to do research, the gate keeper helps get them into the group to do this research. Overt participant observation is where the researcher takes a more open role; they openly ask the group if they will allow the researcher to study them.
Interpretivists prefer participant observations as they argue that it’s the most effective way to understand the meanings people give on certain things, they also prefer it as there is a greater chance of developing their understanding further by verstehen. An advantage of covert participant observation could be that more valid research will be gained as they study is true to life when compared to overt research. With overt participant observation there can be a risk of less valid data due to the Hawthorne Effect; this is where the presence of the researcher can affect the way the participants behave.
With both covert and overt participant observations rapports can be made which may lead to more valid data and data that is normally hard to reach as the group that the researcher is studying will begin to trust them. However, this can take time and can be less practical. An example of this is Eileen Barker’s study on the Unification Church, she studied the ‘Moonie’s’ over 7 years, gaining the trust of the participants, who soon saw her as a friend, thus enabling her to gain more valid and truthful research.
By doing this, Barker gained verstehen meaning she could understand the feelings of the people she was studying, empathising with them; as a result she developed a further understanding of their way of life. Other practical issues with covert participant observation are that it can be hard to find a gate keeper to let the researcher into the group. Both covert and overt research are very time consuming and cost a lot, so the study must be worth the time of studying.
Both covert and overt observations can be low in reliability as they are hard to replicate and get consistent results. Researchers may remember and interpret things differently thus reducing the reliability of the research even further. This tends to be more of a disadvantage with covert research as they are unable to write down everything the group being studied says as it will risk their cover and could ruin the research.
With an overt role, this can be avoided as they are able to take notes in the open, and can use different types of methods such as interviews or questionnaires. Covert participant observation tends to be more unethical than overt participant observation as the researcher doesn’t ask the group for consent thus deceiving the group, the researcher may take part in illegal acts in order to maintain cover, an example of this is Patrick, he studied a gang in Glasgow over four months, during his time in the gang he was required to partake in burglaries to keep the trust of the gang.
To prevent this, researchers may want to take more of an overt role, which means they have an honest and open role within the group, meaning there is no deception and they won’t have to take part in illegal acts. Positivists don’t like participant observation as it’s hard for them to gather quantitative data, so they aren’t able to generalise or see patterns or trends.