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Participant observation

Participant observation refers to a form of sociological research methodology in which the researcher takes on a role in the social situation under observation. The social researcher immerses herself in the social setting under study, getting to know key actors in that location in a role which is either covert or overt, although in practice, the researcher will often move between these two roles. The aim is to experience events in the manner in which the subjects under study also experience these events. Sociologists who employ participant observation as a research tool aim to discover the nature of social reality by understanding the actor's perception, understanding and interpretation of that social world. Whilst observing and experiencing as a participant, the sociologist must retain a level of objectivity in order to understand, analyse and explain the social world under study.

There are two main types of participant observation; covert and overt:-

Covert observation involves:

Problems of covert observation include: Advantages of this type of covert participant role are: Overt observation involves: Problems with overt observation include: Advantages of the use of overt observation include: One famous example of covert participant observation is that undertaken by Erving Goffman in his study of mental hospitals, published as Stigma in 1968. Goffman worked in an asylum for the mentally ill as Assistant Athletic Director. His research was mainly covert, with only a couple of staff being privy to the knowledge of his research, and via this method he was able to uncover the 'unofficial reality' of life in a mental institution.

An example of overt observation is William F. Whyte's study Street Corner Society, (1943) where he was protected from potential antagonism by his friendship with 'Doc', his sponsor. However, Whyte, despite employing an overt participant observer role, did increasingly come to view himself as 'one of the gang' during his fieldwork research.

Going further. See:
Subjective sociology – the aim of understanding the social world from the subject's point of view.
Naturalistic method – the attempt to understand the motives and meanings of social actions from the viewpoint of those involved.
Empathy – the attempt by the researcher to be appreciative and supportive of the actions and motivations of those under study.

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