Studying Sociology GCSE and Sociology A Level: 8: Qualitative Methods: 1

Here is the 8th in our series of study blogs for those studying A level Sociology and GCSE Sociology.

Qualitative Methods Part 1 – Participant Observations

Qualitative methods use data that is collected in the form of words, quotations and detailed descriptions. They can provide more in-depth, detailed information than quantitative methods. But their use depends on what the researcher wants to find out. Let’s look at two qualitative methods in a bit more detail: –

  • Participant observation
  • Unstructured interviews

Participant Observation

  • In participant observation the researcher studies a group taking part in an activity.  The sociologist is a non-participant observer as he/she observes the group without participating.
  • The researcher watches and records what happens over a period of time.
  • This research can be carried out overtly or covertly.
  • If the research is carried out overtly the group knows the researcher is observing them. Whilst this is more ethical, it can mean that participants change their behaviour because they know they are being observed – the observer effect.
  • If the group is observed covertly, the sociologist observes it secretly without the participants’ knowledge – they may just think that he/she is a friend or colleague, or another group member.
  • Therefore, with covert observation participants do not give informed consent to take part in the research, so there is an ethical dilemma here. But, participants will not necessarily change their behaviour, because they do not know they are being observed.
  • Some argue that covert observations are the best way to study groups, whilst others argue that people should be given the choice of whether they are observed or not.

Example – Say you wanted to study criminal behaviour amongst a drug smuggling gang. If a sociologist went to the group and said he/she wanted to observe it, the members might not agree – or they might agree but change their behaviour, and then the information gained would be less useful. Or the sociologist could go and join the gang, pretend to be a member and observe the other members. He/she will then gain a more useful insight into what is going on, but there is a risk to the sociologist. What happens if the gang finds out what the researcher is doing? Also, he/she is observing behaviour that is potentially criminal. Should the sociologist report that behaviour? The people in the gang should also have the right not to be observed if they don’t want to be. All of these issues are moral dilemmas in this type of research. The next blog will look at unstructured interviews.

Tracey Jones



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