Participant observation is sometimes described as an ethnographic approach. It involves small-scale observations of groups, either covertly or overtly. As a research method it is sometimes held up as unbiased since, in theory, all that the researchers do is look and listen, avoiding any pre-conceptions of what is or is not important. However, critics argue that it is prone to subjective interpretations, especially if the researcher gets too close and ‘goes native’ within the group.
The strength of this introduction is that it unpacks participant observation in some detail. However, a weakness is that the entrepreneurial and violent crime surrounding the work of bouncers is not addressed. It is always good practice to address the full question in the introduction.
Participant observation is sometimes described as a naturalistic approach, involving the study of people in their natural setting. It is therefore an appropriate method for researching the entrepreneurial and violent crime surrounding the work of bouncers because it is viewed as the method least likely to result in ‘imposition factor’. This is when the researcher consciously or unconsciously influences the people s/he is studying. However, if researchers get too close to their subject matter, the research can lose its objectivity and become biased. This is sometimes referred to as ‘going native’.
The naturalistic nature of participant observation is discussed here and followed by an evaluative AO2 point. The idea of ‘going native’ is an important one — a potential problem for any research based on observation.
Participant observation is ideally suited to studying small groups in detail, so would lend itself to studying bouncers and their criminal activities because it offers the kind of sociological insight that is not found in social surveys. In addition, the nature of the research here is not something that bouncers would openly discuss in either questionnaires or interviews. However, observers are inevitably selective depending on their subjective intuition. Therefore it can never be certain that observations do not reflect the personal views of the observers who see only what they want to see.
This is a packed paragraph. It begins by justifying the method for studying bouncers. There then follow good AO2 points about the dangers of observation becoming selective and subjective.
Interpretive sociologists favour participant observation because it is one of the best methods for studying interaction. By focusing on the meanings that bouncers give for their criminal and deviant actions, such research should produce data high in validity. However, positivists argue that observation is not replicable and hence is low in reliability. It would be unlikely that another researcher would establish the same quality of relationships with the same group and generate the same sort of data.
It is good to connect the method of participant observation with the interpretive approach and the notion that this method collects data high in validity. A useful AO2 evaluative point is made about participant observation being low in reliability.
Finally, adopting covert participant observation, like Winlow in the Item, would make it possible to study bouncers who as a group are unlikely to want to be researched. It also protects the researcher, as Winlow notes. However, there are ethical issues associated with covert research and because they are a small group, it may be difficult to generalise from this observation study. Equally, if the researchers lacked interpersonal skills or the right sort of personality to be accepted by the bouncer’s community, then the quality of data collected could be seriously impaired.
A good point is made about how covert participant observation could be the ideal method for researching this group and their criminal behaviour, but there is recognition of the ethical concerns. The second evaluative AO2 point highlights the sensitivities of researching this specific group and the need to fit in.
In conclusion, because the research here is about a group’s criminal activities, participant observation in a covert study would seem the most appropriate research method, even though this raises ethical concerns. It seems unlikely that bouncers would actively participate in any overt observation into their deviant behaviour because they would be wary of incriminating themselves or they would avoid engaging in the same degree of deviance and would therefore not be behaving naturally. Therefore covert observation would seem to be the only practical method since bouncers may be reluctant to be interviewed or to complete questionnaires about their deviant activities.
This conclusion makes a bold statement that covert participant observation is the most appropriate method to use in investigating entrepreneurial and violent crime surrounding the work of bouncers, on the grounds that bouncers would not participate in overt study and may be reluctant to answer questionnaires or take part in interviews.
Documents and official statistics
1 Official statistics are data collected and published by the government and its agencies. While some data are viewed as accurate, such as birth, death and marriage rates, other data are viewed as inaccurate, such as suicide and crime rates.
2 Official statistics are usually published on a regular basis and are freely available. Large samples are used, providing levels of representativeness not available to academic researchers. For example, the Census is a study of every household and person in the country. In addition, the data can be accurate, as in the case of birth, death, marriage, divorce etc. rates. Even when there are doubts over the accuracy of data, such as with crime and suicide statistics, the figures can give indications of trends over time.
3 Interpretive sociologists argue that statistics are little more than a social construction. For example, the official crime statistics published as police recorded crime (PRC) only present a picture of crimes that have been reported to and recorded by the police. This is a significant underestimation of the true or real level of crime. Therefore official statistics only tell us about who collected them, how they were collected and for what purpose.
4 Self-report studies are surveys of individuals who are asked to record all offences they have personally committed over a period of time (usually the previous 12 months). Self-report studies are heavily criticised because people can forget, exaggerate or feel too inhibited to disclose honestly. However, they can yield useful information about the age, class and gender of offenders who have avoided getting caught or processed by the police. In addition, they can provide useful information about victimless crimes, such as illegal drug use.
5 Self-report surveys are by their nature questionable: there are strong reasons why respondents might conceal the nature and extent of their offences. OCJS goes some way towards dealing with these problems, with A-CASI providing some assurance about confidentiality and anonymity. However, it remains likely that not all responses were truthful; we have only the word of respondents that they were telling the truth. The research is able to identify the factors associated with victimisation and offending, but cannot show the nature of this relationship. What is more, children under 10 remain excluded from this study and from most other research on crime.
6 All sociological research begins with a search of relevant secondary data. This is known as a ‘literature search’ and includes relevant sociological research that has been undertaken in the same area as well as official statistics and any documents that are related to the topic of research. This gives a good background, identifies potential pitfalls, issues and areas to avoid, and may form the basis of comparisons. Historical documents can be helpful. Personal documents, such as diaries and letters, need to be viewed with considerable care, as they can reflect little more than subjective bias, but they can also provide data rich in validity.
7 The first potential problem of using secondary data is to do with accuracy and authenticity. Many documents attributed to authors are in fact counterfeit. Therefore, all sociologists should be wary of secondary documents unless their authenticity is certain as the content may contain errors or biases. We have noted above how interpretive sociologists see official quantitative data as of little value, since they regard them as little more than a social construction. Another problem with using secondary sources is that the operationalisation of concepts may differ between researchers and over time.
8 Formal content analysis involves a systematic analysis of secondary documents in which content is divided into particular categories, which are then counted. For example, a researcher may be looking for evidence of racial stereotyping of criminals in the media. A systematic study would be made up of crime stories with the categorisation of criminals in terms of their ethnicity and the manner in which they are discussed in terms of their ethnicity. On this basis, it is possible to work out what percentage of the content of the newspaper could be interpreted as racially stereotypical.
9 Personal documents such as diaries, memoirs and letters are subjective and therefore prone to bias. However, they have the potential of providing a good source of qualitative data high in validity because of their personal nature. If they are used with care and recognised as just one person’s viewpoint and therefore not necessarily representative, they could offer an insight into criminal areas.