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Participant observation in terms of ethics access reactivity

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 3076 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Critically evaluate the different forms of participant observation in terms of ethics, access and reactivity. To what extent do all forms of participant observation involve some aspect of covert research?

Widely expanding globalisation has brought cultures and organisations closer. For this reason exploring and learning about differences between ways of working and living play significant role in social research. Qualitative approach seems to give the best result in researching above issues. Among many qualitative strategies only participant observation gives opportunity to enter profoundly researched world. Literature provides many definition of this strategy for instance according to Gill and Johnson (2002) participant observation enables researcher to share subjects’ experiences through actually feeling it. Further, the researcher is able to participate entirely in their lives and activities and also be associated with their group, community or organisation. The roots of participant observation can be found in anthropology, also Chicago School of social research highly contributed in 1920s and 1930s to the expansion of observation practice in social research. (May 2001)

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The aim of this essay is to critically evaluate different forms of participant observation in terms of ethics that relate to questions about clarification of research topic, data collection, data analysis; issues with the access, how we can enter the field and finally reactivity – the influence that presence of observer exert on subjects’ behaviour. Also it focuses on the extent to what all forms of participant observation involve some aspect of covert research.

Covert as well as overt approach can been adapted while conducting participant observation. Overt research requires informed consent from participants whereas covert occurs when research purpose is not revealed. Within covert and overt approaches four forms of participant observation can be distinguished. The division of the forms is also based on the researcher’s level of activity. Participant as observer is active and overt form, complete participant is also active but covert form. Two passive forms are observer as participant and complete observer. Former is overt and latter covert form. This classification has been developed by Buford Junker (Junker 1952, cited in Gold 1958) and further analysed by Gold (1958). More recent books devoted to research methods draw also on this classification, for instance Gill and Johnson Research Methods for Managers, Bryman and Bell Business Research Methods. Nevertheless it is worth noting that some authors adapted different naming of above forms. Thus Norris (1993) in his field work with Police followed typology created by John Van Maanen (Maanen 1978, cited in Norris 1993). These include four roles that researcher can accommodate: Spy, Member, Voyeur and Fan. The Spy role corresponds with complete participant, Member with participant as observer whereas Voyeur equates with complete observer form and finally Fan corresponds with observer as participant. (Norris 1993)

The covert forms of participant observation where researcher identity is concealed have roused debate on ethics in terms of deceit and the lack of informed consent from subjects of the research (Bulmer, 1982). There is also plausibility of privacy invasion and lack of the right to withdraw from the research process (Saunders, 2009). Erikson cited in Bulmer (1982) compares cover research to medical experiments conducted on people without their agreement, sometimes it can injure subjects in the way that can never be compensated afterwards. In the role of complete observer ethical issues may seem to be less pressing as the role detach researcher from social interactions with subjects. However there is possibility of ethnocentrism. The point of view, understanding of observed is ignored hence it can cause subjective analysis of data and inaccurate inference. Also methods used like continuous eavesdropping and reconnaissance can violate people’s privacy (Gold, 1958). On the other hand, the complete participant when entering the research field aims to build trust as well as relationships with subjects in order to to blend into the social settings therefore the absence of informed consent can cause direct harm to the research subjects. Also it can harm researcher as he constantly needs to pretend and be sensitive to any of his acts. (Gold, 1958) Furthermore, as participant observation predominantly cover extended period of time continuous concealment of identity contrives anxiety in researcher and the pressure on the researcher is very high. (Schwartz and Schwartz, 1955) The betrayal of participants trust can also negatively affect the standing of the sociology as well as spoil the field for other researches (Bulmer, 1982). However some authors do not advocate this standpoint: Homan (1980), Humphrey (1975). They argue that discovering the truth in social science have a priority over any other concerns.

The example of covert research that illustrates ethical problems could be Humphreys’s research on impersonal sexual activity between male homosexuals. He conducted concealed observations that involved tape recording in public rest-rooms and also took details of participants’ cars, state and licence numbers. Afterwards he declared himself as market researcher to police in order to acquire names and addresses of the sample. He also used their names in the health survey he was engaged at that point. As his was concerned that the participants might remember him from the observation he waited a year before he conducted the survey, moreover he changed his appearance and car (Burgess, 1991). There is a clear deception, high invasion of privacy, lack of informed consent and lack of respect for human dignity in all stages of this particular research.

Beside all the ethical problems that covert research can consist of, it can be argued that covert research in some context is necessary; otherwise the research cannot be conducted. Li (2008) in the study of female gamblers, she was concerned with the ethical issues therefore she revealed the purpose of her presence in casinos after close conversations with subjects and as the result she met with refusal of further participation.

The overt forms of participant observation do not arouse as much controversy in relation to ethics however there are general ethical issues that need to be concerned. The British Sociological Association provides the guideline to researchers about ethical issues that may occur during research process. The main principle states that researcher should give those involved appropriate details of the research, especially in the field work this should be carry out as a process with renegotiations over the time of research. It is also important to respect privacy of others, administer confidentiality and avoid harm of participants. The results of the research should be reliable and have clearly stated limitations (BSA, 2002). Notwithstanding, taking into account Norris study with Police, there is possibility of complex ethical problems even with overt research therefore researchers should be more aware of ethical and moral aspects and take full responsibility for their actions from beginning to the end of the research (Norris, 1993).

The access in participant observation is a continuous process and includes physical access as well as cognitive access. The latest can be achieved if participants are willing to share rich information with researcher (Saunders, 2009). Managing the access can be also seen as a political process (Brannen, 1987). Moreover some issues of access apply to all forms of participant observations. For instance gender of the researcher is important in culture studies or those involving lack of diversity. Li (2008) reports, sharing same gender helped her in getting access to female gamblers as she was not seen as a threat, also her age helped her to gain data as researched felt they have a duty to warn her about negative consequences of gambling. The initial contact again may be crucial for the research progress (Burgess 1991). The participants may become suspicious about researcher or feel uncomfortable in his presence hence limit access. Furthermore, key informants in participant observation are useful source of information therefore it is helpful to build positive relation with them however the attention needs to be also drawn to the problem of ignoring views of others participants, elite biases while interfering (Bryman and Bell, 2007). Finally, the time spent in the field also eases access, help to perceive patterns of behaviour, recognise main values and discover subtle elements particularly in community research (Fatterman,1998).

The covert forms according to Bryman and Bell (2007) can easy the access as the researcher do not need to inquire permission to enter the field. Moreover it can be the only available approach to conduct studies of for instance sexual deviance, religious practices or corruption. The role as the complete participant involves constant pretending also it is important to act as situation requires otherwise the further access can be denied and research failed (Gold, 1958). Roy (1952) in his research on production behaviour gained access through the employment in the machine shop. He became a member of the radial-drill operators group therefore he had chance to take part in all activities, conversations and get the inside view of the problems. As he state, revealing the purpose of the presence in machine shop would halt the access. Besides advantages of gathering inside information in terms of access in complete participant role, there is a danger of ‘going native’ issue. Researcher may establish too close relations with participants and get excessively involved in participation. It affects data collected as the findings cannot be reported objectively (Hammersley, Atkinson, 1983). The other covert role, complete observer gives physical access to any social settings that can be accessed by public but it does not give cognitive access hence the researcher never can access the true meaning of observed acts. As suggest by Gold (1958) this role should be used to subordinate the superior roles.

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Revealing the purpose of the study can also facilitate the access is some cases. Davis (1986) in the example of exploring community functional dimension and its health status by nurse advocates that overt and active form of participant observation encourage participation and help to appoint key respondents. Access in overt forms of participant observation may also depend on the gatekeepers, persons that possess power to grant entry to social settings or people (Burgess, 1984). Especially elites, successful people or organisations are in most cases not willing to be studied therefore establishing with gatekeepers relation based on the trust, bargaining may help in approaching them (Hornsby-Smith, 1993). Moreover gangs are hardly achievable without gatekeepers. Whyte (1955) was able to study American gang thanks to his close relationship with the gang leader. Another issue with access when obtaining the role as participant-observer is getting permission to conduct research, not always everyone will accept the presence of researcher even if the entry is allowed. Consequently the access needs to be constantly renegotiated with each individual to avoid suspicions and provide valid data (Friedman, McDaniel, 1998). Other view on this issue can be seen in Norris study. He notifies officers about the purpose of the research but only partly, just to make the researched comfortable. Only when asked he provide broader explanation but do not continuously renegotiate access to avoid suspicions and unnecessary tension (Norris, 1993). Finally when applying observer as participant role the access is mostly physical and finding the meanings subjects give to different situations is difficult. (Burgess, 1991)

Reactivity in the research is defined as reaction of the studied on the researcher presence and his research instruments (Bryman, 1988). Undertaking a covert form of participant observation can provide solution to these issues (Saunders, 2009). However as Burgess (1991) states a role of complete participant can also alert the behaviour of subjects. Entering the established community or organisation where workforce changes are rare will always rise suspicions and cause change of behaviour even if researcher identity is concealed. In order to minimize this effect the researcher integration with social setting should occur. Despite the reactivity in complete observer role is very low the adaption to the appearance of the rest of the studied in the group is necessary. One of the examples where above matter is Norris (1993) study, he was able to hear private conversation between officers as he maintained same dress code so his presence did not alert those not aware of the research.

The problem of the reactivity is highly visible in the overt forms of participant observation. Subjects are aware of the purpose of the research and can act differently to satisfy researcher and show positive attitudes. However over the time the reactivity level can be reduced. In the Schwartz and Schwartz (1955) participant observation conducted in the small mental hospital, reactivity of the participant as observer and observer as participant has been assessed. When the researcher entered the ward his presence inflicted curiosity as well as suspicions among patients and staff. Over about six months time reactivity diminished and researcher was treated as staff member. This could be achieved through empathy, respect and rapport. The observer as participant role was adapted in order to investigate how the needs are fulfilled on the ward. The more detached researcher was the less he affected the situations. However reactivity appeared to be lower, the researcher was still identified as outsider and his effect on the events was hard to evaluate.

Punch (1993) as well as Norris (1993) recognise the influence of the language and adopted working patterns in overpowering reactivity. Willingness to work same hours as officers and speaking same jargon can precipitate process of habituation in active forms of participant observation. On the other hand habituation can put researcher in uncomfortable position as he can become witness of scenes, albeit valuable, causing moral dilemma. Norris (1993) experienced it by observing incident in canteen. He should report misconduct or should keep his promise of not reporting to higher ranks.

The advantage of participant observation is its inductive character. The researcher set the questions at the beginning of the field work however the new questions arise while conducting observations. Moreover people through telling their stories enable researcher to discover significant concerns (Raymond and McDaniel, 1998). This issue is robustly related with mutuality of the forms that can be adapted in participant observation. As Gold (1958) advocated, playing and adapting different roles during the research is a condition of gathering rich data. Norris (1993) paramount role was Fan, observing and listening while attending street incidents. Nevertheless he experienced all four forms. He felt like Spy when hiding in toilet to jot down notes, when overhearing officers’ conversations he was a Voyeur and a Member when he actively took part in the arrest of drug-user and was introduced to the public as fellow police officer. Adapting at initiation overt forms will always involve some situation where covert observation develops. As Burgess (1991) indicates not all subjects know about the research and its principles as well as everyone can interpret them in different way especially if the sample is large. Referring once more to the Norris study, the greater access we obtain the more chance to be part of informal, outside the work place interaction. Participants may do not conceive that the researcher observe continuously. Also there is a problem of the public involvement. Participant observer studying areas where interactions with public are involved is not always able to get informed consent from those affected. Norris (1993) when attending intervention in domestic dispute, routine stops decided to not state purpose of his presence as he wanted to avoid occurrence of reactivity also in some cases (fight interventions) it was just impossible and could only raise further nuisance.

In conclusion, participant observation is very demanding. The researcher should be well prepared before entering the field, intensive literature review is highly recommended. Familiarity with the consequences of decisions in terms of ethics prior to research and as research develops should occur. The literature discerns three ethical positions to adopt. The legalistic approach advises to follow professional code of conduct as British Sociological Association. It credits confidentiality, privacy and principle of informed consent. The situational approach on the other hand recognises the complexity of the ethical issues in decision making process. Decisions need to be made upon consideration of participants’ beliefs, values. The last standpoint is the antinomian where knowledge is the centre of the attention. There should not any restrictions exist in pursuit of knowledge (Norris, 1993). As discussed in the essay forms of participant observation have their strengths as well limitations in terms of ethics, access and reactivity. Overt forms however more ethical might not facilitate access and raise the problem of reactivity. Alternatively covert forms ease the access in most cases and reactivity there is very low, ethically evoke difficulties. Active forms enable imminent contact with subjects but encompass some form of deceit and abuse people trust. Passive forms concentrate only on observation therefore do not harm researched but feasibility of bias is high hence the validity of findings can be questioned. Participant observer role is to be able to adopt different forms accordingly to the situation. It helps to reduce impact of weaknesses of each form and provide valid data.


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