Participant observation in terms of ethics access reactivity Essay Example
Participant observation in terms of ethics access reactivity Essay Example

Participant observation in terms of ethics access reactivity Essay Example

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  • Pages: 9 (2403 words)
  • Published: August 10, 2017
  • Type: Report
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In this essay, we will critically evaluate the various signs of participant observation in terms of ethics, access, and responsiveness. We will also analyze the extent to which all forms of participant observation impact covert research. With the widespread globalization, different cultures and organizations have been brought closer together. As a result, studying and learning about the differences in working and living methods plays a significant role in social research. Among the various qualitative strategies, participant observation seems to yield the best results when exploring these issues. This approach allows researchers to deeply engage with the researched population. According to Gill and Johnson (2002), participant observation allows researchers to share in the subjects' experiences by actively participating in their lives and activities, as well as being associated with their group, community, or organization. The roots of parti


cipant observation can be traced back to anthropology, and the Chicago School of social research greatly contributed to its expansion in the 1920s and 1930s (May 2001). The aim of this essay is to critically assess different forms of participant observation in terms of ethics related to research topic clarification, data collection, and data analysis.The text discusses issues, methods, and categories of participant observation in research. It mentions the influence of a perceiver on behavior and explores how various forms of participant observation can affect covert research. Covert and overt approaches can be used, with the latter requiring informed consent from participants. Four forms of participant observation are identified, based on the researcher's level of activity. These forms include participant as perceiver (active and open), complete participant (active but covert), observer as participant (inactive and open), and complete observer

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(inactive and covert). This classification was developed by Buford Junker and further analyzed by Gold. Other authors, such as Norris, have used different terms for these forms.The text discusses four functions that a research worker can take on: Spy, Member, Voyeur, and Fan. The Spy function involves being a complete participant, the Member function involves being a participant as an observer, the Voyeur function involves being a complete perceiver, and the Fan function involves being a perceiver as a participant (Norris 1993). The hidden forms of participant observation, where the researcher conceals their identity, have sparked debate on ethics in terms of fraudulence and the lack of informed consent from research subjects (Bulmer, 1982). There is also the potential invasion of privacy and lack of the right to withdraw from the research process (Saunders, 2009). Erikson, cited in Bulmer (1982), compares covert research to medical experiments conducted on people without their understanding, as it can sometimes harm subjects in a way that can never be compensated for. In the role of a complete observer, ethical issues may seem less pressing as the researcher is detached from social interactions with subjects. However, there is a possibility of ethnocentrism. Ignoring the observed point of view can lead to subjective analysis of data and inaccurate conclusions. Additionally, methods such as continuous eavesdropping and reconnaissance can violate people's privacy (Gold, 1958).The complete participant aims to build trust and relationships with research subjects in order to blend into social scenes. The absence of informed consent can harm both the subjects and the researcher. It can cause direct injury to the subjects and the researcher may need to pretend and be

sensitive to their actions. Additionally, the continuous privacy of identity during participant observation can create anxiety and high pressure for the researcher. The betrayal of participants' trust can negatively impact the standing of sociology and the field for other researchers. However, some writers, such as Homan and Humphrey, argue that uncovering the truth in social science takes precedence over other concerns. An example of covert research that raises ethical problems is Humphreys' study on anonymous sexual activity between male homosexuals. It involved hidden observations, tape recording in public rest-rooms, and collecting details of participants' cars, state, and license numbers.The researcher identified himself as a market research worker in order to collect names and references from the sample. He also used their names in a health study he was conducting. Due to concerns about being recognized by participants, he waited a year before conducting the study and changed his appearance and car. This research raises ethical concerns such as misrepresentation, invasion of privacy, lack of informed consent, and disrespect for human dignity. However, some argue that covert research is necessary in certain contexts where it would otherwise be impossible. Li (2008) encountered ethical issues in her study on female gamblers and addressed them by openly discussing her motives with participants, resulting in some individuals refusing further participation. Participant observation, when done openly, may not raise as many ethical issues, but general ethical concerns should still be taken into consideration. The British Sociological Association provides guidelines for researchers regarding potential ethical issues that may arise during the research process.The main rule states that researchers should provide those involved with appropriate details of the research, particularly during fieldwork.

This should be done through a process of negotiations. It is also important to respect privacy, maintain confidentiality, and avoid harming participants. The research findings should be reliable and clearly state any limitations. However, even with open research, there can be complex ethical problems. Therefore, researchers should be aware of ethical and moral aspects and take full responsibility for their actions throughout the research. Participant observation involves continuous access, both physically and cognitively. Cognitive access can be achieved if participants are willing to share rich information with the researcher. Managing access can also be seen as a political process. Additionally, certain issues of access apply to all forms of participant observation, such as the gender of the researcher, especially in culture studies or those involving a lack of diversity (Norris, 1993; BSA, 2002; Saunders, 2009; Brannen, 1987).According to Li (2008), studying and interacting with people of the same gender helped her gain access to female gamblers because she was not seen as a threat. Additionally, her age allowed her to gather information because researchers felt responsible for warning her about the negative effects of gambling. Burgess (1991) emphasizes the importance of the initial contact in advancing research, as participants may become skeptical or uncomfortable in the presence of the researcher, limiting access. Moreover, Bryman and Bell (2007) suggest that establishing positive relationships with key sources in participant observation is beneficial, but researchers must also be cautious of ignoring the perspectives of other participants and their own biases. Time spent in the field, as Fatterman (1998) explains, aids in accessing information, understanding behavioral patterns, identifying core values, and observing subtle elements, especially in community research. Bryman

and Bell (2007) note that covert forms of research can facilitate access without requiring permission to enter the field, making it particularly useful for studying sensitive subjects like sexual deviance, religious practices, or corruption.The role of the complete participant is to engage in consistent pretense while also adapting to the situation at hand, as failure to do so may result in denied access and failed research (Gold, 1958). Roy's (1952) research on production behavior involved joining a group of radial-drill operators in a machine shop, allowing him to participate in all activities and gain insider knowledge. However, becoming too involved in the role of a complete participant can lead to the researcher forming close relationships with participants and becoming overly engrossed in their involvement, affecting the objectivity of the data collected (Hammersley, Atkinson, 1983). On the other hand, the covert role of a complete observer provides physical access to social settings accessible by the public, but it does not provide cognitive access, preventing the researcher from fully understanding the true meaning behind observed actions. Gold (1958) suggests using this role to subordinate higher-ranking roles, and in some cases, revealing the purpose of the study can facilitate access.Davis (1986) discusses the importance of participant observation in researching community functional dimension and its wellness position with nurse advocates. Active participant observation allows for engagement and helps identify key respondents. However, access to open forms of participant observation can be influenced by gatekeepers, who have the power to grant entry to social scenes or people (Burgess, 1984). Establishing a relationship based on trust and bargaining with gatekeepers, particularly elites or successful individuals, may increase access (Hornsby-Smith, 1993). Gatekeepers

are necessary in studying gangs, as seen in Whyte's (1955) analysis of American gangs through his close relationship with a gang leader. Obtaining permission to conduct research as a participant observer can be challenging, as not everyone will accept the presence of a researcher even if entry is allowed. Continual renegotiation of access with each individual is important to avoid suspicion and gather valid data (Friedman, McDaniel, 1998). Norris also discusses the importance of notifying officers about the research purpose to establish comfort for the individuals being studied.When asked, he provides a more detailed account without continuously renegotiating access to avoid suspicions and unnecessary tension (Norris, 1993). In addition, when adopting the role of observer as participant, access is mostly physical and understanding the meanings individuals attribute to different situations is difficult (Burgess, 1991). Responsiveness in research refers to the reaction of those being studied to the presence of the researcher and their research tools (Bryman, 1988). Conducting covert participant observation can be a solution to these issues (Saunders, 2009). However, as Burgess (1991) points out, taking on a complete participant role can also trigger changes in subjects' behavior. Joining an established community or organization where workforce changes are rare will always raise suspicions and lead to altered behavior, even if the researcher's identity is concealed. To minimize this effect, the researcher must integrate into the social setting. Despite being very low in complete observer function, adapting to the appearance of other participants in the group is necessary. An example illustrating this point is Norris' (1993) study, where he was able to overhear private conversations among officers because he adhered to the same dress code,

thus not alarming those unaware of his research.The visibility of responsiveness in participant observation is evident, as subjects are aware of the research's purpose and can behave differently to appease the researcher and exhibit positive attitudes. However, this level of responsiveness can decrease over time. In Schwartz and Schwartz's (1955) study conducted at a small mental hospital, the researchers assessed the responsiveness of both the participant as an observer and the observer as a participant. Initially, when the researcher entered the ward, their presence sparked curiosity and suspicion among patients and staff. However, after approximately six months, the level of responsiveness diminished, and the researcher was treated as a member of the staff. This shift in perception could be attributed to empathy, respect, and shared experiences. The researcher also took on the role of participant to understand how the needs of the ward were met. The more detached the researcher became, the less they influenced the situations they observed. Despite reduced responsiveness, the researchers were still seen as outsiders, making it challenging to assess their impact on events. Punch (1993) and Norris (1993) acknowledge that language and adopting similar working styles can help overcome low responsiveness. Demonstrating a willingness to work the same hours as staff members and using familiar slang can facilitate rapport building in active forms of participant observation.On the other hand, addiction can put a researcher in an uncomfortable position as they may become witnesses to valuable scenes, causing moral dilemmas. Norris (1993) personally experienced this when he observed an incident in the canteen. He faced the decision of whether to report the misconduct or keep his promise of not reporting it

to higher authorities. Participant observation has the advantage of being an inductive process. Although the researcher sets the initial questions at the beginning of their fieldwork, new questions often arise during the course of their observations. Additionally, by listening to people's stories, researchers are able to uncover important concerns (Raymond and McDaniel, 1998). This issue is closely tied to the adaptability of forms that can be employed in participant observation. As Gold (1958) argues, playing and adapting different roles during research is necessary for gathering rich data. Norris (1993) primarily took on the role of a fan, observing and listening to street incidents. However, he also experienced all four forms mentioned. He felt like a spy when hiding in the restroom to jot down notes, a voyeur when secretly listening to officers' conversations, and a member when actively participating in the apprehension of a drug user and being introduced to the public as a fellow police officer. Adapting overt forms will always involve situations where covert observation comes into play.According to Burgess (1991), not all individuals are knowledgeable about research and its rules, and each person may interpret them differently, especially in the case of a large sample size. Referring back to the Norris survey, the more access we have, the more opportunity there is for informal interactions outside of the workplace. Participants may not realize that the researcher is continuously observing. Additionally, there is an issue with public involvement. A participant observer who is studying areas where public interactions occur may not always be able to obtain informed consent from those affected. Norris (1993) chose not to disclose his presence during interventions in domestic

disputes in order to prevent interference, and in some cases, it was impossible and would only cause further disruption. In conclusion, participant observation is a challenging method. Researchers should be well-prepared before entering the field, and conducting an extensive literature review is highly recommended. Familiarity with ethical implications before and during the research process is necessary. The literature outlines three ethical positions. The legalistic approach advises adhering to professional codes of behavior like the British Sociological Association, which emphasizes confidentiality, privacy, and informed consent.The situational attack, on the other hand, acknowledges the complexity of ethical issues in the decision-making process. Decisions must consider the beliefs and values of participants. The antinomian perspective believes that knowledge should not have any limitations (Norris, 1993). In terms of participant observation, different forms have strengths and limitations in ethics, access, and responsiveness. Overt forms may be more ethical but may hinder access and responsiveness. Covert forms generally provide access but have low responsiveness and ethical concerns. Active forms involve close contact with subjects but may involve fraud and abuse of trust. Passive forms focus on observation only, minimizing harm to those being researched but increasing feasibility of bias and questioning the validity of findings. The role of the participant observer is to adapt to different situations, reducing the impact of each form's weaknesses and providing valid data.

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