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The Advantages and Disadvantages of Participant Observation as a Research Method

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Q1 The Advantages and Disadvantages of Participant Observation as a Research Method

This essay will examine how participant observation is used as a research method. In the main body of this essay, this idea will be addressed by pointing out advantages and disadvantages of participant observation. I will give examples to support my argument.

Participant observation is the main research method favoured by interpetitivists. It involves the researcher participating in a social group to observe and experience the world as a participant while still observing the group for future analysis of their behaviour from the researchers point of view. The researcher must decide how he will approach the group he wishes to join. He may decide to become an 'overt' participant observer, in which the researcher will join the group as a participant and does not hide the fact that he is observing, or he may decide to become a 'covert' participant observer, in which he becomes a normal participant in the setting while concealing the fact that the research is being done.

Sometimes the researcher may use degrees of overtness, for example, in Whytes study "Street corner society" (1955), he became friendly with "Doc" and was overt with him while consealing his true identity to the rest of the gang members.

There are both advantages and disadvantages to participant observation. Participants face the problem of objectivity, it is often very time consuming, for example, Beverly Skeggs (1997), spent 12 years researching the lives of women on a 'caring' course in England. Participants also face dangers and can also find themselves in situations they find morally unacceptable or illegal. Quantitative researchers samples are too small and while the researcher may get the bulk of his/her information from structured questions, they are not getting peoples true opinions. The conclusions can only apply to the specific group which the researcher has studied and cannot be generalised or replicated. The observer himself decides what information to select or omit and the fact that the observer is present in overt observations, it is believed that the group will not act naturally. This therefore questions the validity of the data collected.

There are also many advantages to participant observation compared with other research methods. By preparing a questionnaire,

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