Observation is an aspect of research which gives efficiency to the research data. If a particular research is based in what people do or how do they behave, the only way to determine this is by observing them. Hence, observation comes into picture which is concerned with systematically observing, recording, expressing and understanding human behavior. Observation is basically classified into two types- Participant and Structured observation. Participant observation is quite ancient in its approach as it obtains from the work of social anthropology and is qualitative in nature. Structured observation, on the other hand is related to the occurrence of such actions and is quantitative in nature (Saunders,M. Lewis,P. Thornhill ,A.2009). This essay talks about the forms of participant observation and its advantages and disadvantages and their evaluation in terms of ethics, access and reactivity.
Participant observation is a component of research wherein the researcher tries to be a part of the group on which the research is being carried out. It lets the researcher to closely observe the lives of such organizations or community. Hence, the researchers are in a better position to talk about their experiences since they have already felt it (Gill and Johnson 2002:144 as cited in Saunders,M. Lewis,P. Thornhill ,A.2009 ).
According to Delbridge and Kirkpatrick (1994:37) as cited in Saunders,M. Lewis,P. Thornhill ,A.2009, participant observation refers to immersing in peoples' lives with a view of trying to understand their own world. Whatever role is performed by the observer, it will always have a greater amount of involvement. Whereas, in the case of data collection in the way of questionnaire the chances of getting to know the respondents are very rare, since their responses may not be accurate to carry out the tasks. Hence, participant observation aims in ascertaining the various shades of the meaning. However, Delbridge and Kirkpatrick (1994) as cited in Saunders,M. Lewis,P. Thornhill ,A.2009, say that in social sciences it is not possible to try and explain the behavior of social actors until the meaning is understood. Hence, it can be noted that the authors make an effort to get into the respondents' world. A commonly used example of participant observation is of Whyte (1955), as cited in Saunders,M. Lewis,P. Thornhill ,A.2009, who actually lived along with the people of a poor American- Italian society, only with a view of understanding "street corner society". Another example is of Roy (1952), as cited in Saunders,M. Lewis,P. Thornhill ,A.2009, who worked as an employee in a machine shop for 10 months only to understand how and why his workers conducted the piece rate system (Saunders,M. Lewis,P. Thornhill ,A.2009).
After having a brief understanding of what participant observation is, it is important to know what exactly participant observers do. There are four types of roles a participant observer can undertake, namely, that of a complete participant, complete observer, observer as participant, and participant as observer. The roles of the complete participant and complete observer are the ones in which the researcher does the research work by not disclosing his identity, whereas in the roles of observer as participant and participant as observer the researcher is required to divulge the details of his identity with whom he is conducting the research (Gill and Johnson, 2002 as cited in Saunders,M. Lewis,P. Thornhill ,A.2009).
The role of the complete participant enables a researcher to become a part of the group in which he intends to carry out his research without letting the members understand his intentions. In this type of research, the researcher plays the role of a 'spy'. Hence, the research is usually conducted on the people who are his friends or colleagues and who trust him when they are revealing the information about themselves. If they had known the real intentions of the researcher they would have naturally not shared their personal information for the purpose of the research (Saunders,M. Lewis,P. Thornhill ,A.2009). However, according to Hammersley and Atkinson (1983) as cited in Saunders,M. Lewis,P. Thornhill ,A.2009, the participant will be caught up more in the expectations from the societies because of his concealed identity. It may turn out to be difficult with regards to collection of data which may be inflexible. A complete observer, also like the complete participant will not intend to reveal his real objective of the research. However, in this case he will not participate in the activities of the group. While conducting the research, his job will be only to quietly observe to form a basis of a structured observation (Saunders,M. Lewis,P. Thornhill ,A.2009).
Observer as participant is the third category which a researcher may undertake. Here the observer will not take an active interest in taking part in the activities, but will only observe them like a spectator. Unlike the previous two categories, the identity would be open to all. Hence, the group will be aware of the intentions' and it will help the researcher to concentrate on his work (Saunders,M. Lewis,P. Thornhill ,A.2009).The final type is participant as observer which allows the researcher to participate in the group work and also observe the activities carried on by the groups. He is in a position wherein he can acquire the trust by revealing his identity as that of a researcher.
Looking at the forms of participant observation it proves to be advantageous in a few ways. It enhances the researchers' knowledge about the considerable developments taking place in the social processes. The data that is collected for the purpose of the research proves to be useful. A few forms of participant observation allow the researcher to experience the true and natural emotions of those who are being researched. It turns out to be even more effective if the researchers are working for their own organizations. It answers to the questions of 'what is going on' in certain circumstances. In spite of the number of benefits, it also suffers from a few drawbacks. In the cases where the researcher is required to conceal his identity, there might be chances of a role conflict to take place. For example, a researcher may be playing the role of a colleague and a researcher at the same time. The role of a participant observer is very challenging, which may restrict the chances of all researchers to take up the task. It can be complicated to gain access to the organizations, thereby also time consuming. Recording a huge amount of data on a regular basis can tend to be a tedious job (Saunders,M. Lewis,P. Thornhill ,A.2009).
A covert research is conducted without the prior consent and knowledge of the respondents. It is a form of participant observation (Gill and Johnson, 2002 as cited in Saunders,M. Lewis,P. Thornhill ,A.2009, which includes two types of roles that can be adopted by a participant observer. Complete participant and complete observer fall under the category of covert research. Ethics plays a very significant role under covert research. Becker (1967) as cited in Saunders,M. Lewis,P. Thornhill ,A.2009, puts forward by saying that the management of situated ethics does not merely consist of implementing a spontaneous attitude, theoretically, but also executing it in practice. Ethics is concerned with the suitable behavior of the researcher with regards to those who are the subject matter of work. Covert research may have serious implications in terms of ethics. A researcher often has to fake friendship with the intention of getting the information on a personal level. The secretive information has to be kept confidential and anonymous or else it may result in an invasion of privacy. Ideally, covert research does not reveal the intentions of the researcher and hence any sensitive information recorded by the researcher must be kept confidential in order to respect the privacy of the members. In spite of such serious issues, the use of covert methods will come into effect only when the participants are not aware that they are being observed. A researcher may not get natural responses or there may be chances of the participants modifying their behavior in order to not disclose their real interests (British Sociological Association 2002).
In reference to this, a television journalist Donal MacIntyre talks about his covert role as the technique of making people talk about their stories in their own words, as if it is their own, which is possible only if they are convinced and believe the researcher. Van Maanen ( 1983), a night club bouncer describes his role as something that could leave him in a 'moral fix'. He says that one of his former female student recognized him and he had to forcibly deny and blamed her of being drunk because of which she had to face humiliation in the public.
Gaining access to covert research cannot be easy. Richardson (1991) believes that the covert research technique is not really required and may result in the obstruction of the information a researcher actually needs. Robert G. Burgess adds on further by saying that it restricts the research by supplying only a singular access and does not welcome for any interviews, thereby limiting the role of the researcher to only examining the personal experiences and observing the activities. Because the researcher has to preserve his false identity, the data recorded may be partial with the fear of detection, thereby losing the focus from the main objective (Joan Cassell, 1982). However, some groups do not give access to researchers and hence the only means of getting an access is by passing as a group member (Chadwick et al., 1984).
Reactivity in covert research is not much of a difficulty. In fact, covert approach lessens the reactivity. Since the respondents are not aware that they are being studied, there are fewer chances of them changing their behavior in front of the researcher (Dyer,C. 1995).
The other form of participant observation is overt research. Overt research takes place when it is conducted after obtaining a prior permission from those who are being observed. It is only after an informed consent that a researcher can perform his research on a group. A researcher will get an informed consent only when the participant is assured that the privacy and anonymity will be preserved in the process of research. Overt approach does not face the problem of ethics to a large extent as that of covert research. The reason being, that the overt research commences only after gaining an approval from the participants (Saunders,M. Lewis,P. Thornhill ,A.2009 as cited in Saunders,M. Lewis,P. Thornhill ,A.2009).
Even though the participants have given their consent to participate in the research, they still hold the right to walk out or refuse to take part in the research. They should not be asked to do anything that may go beyond the capacity of the access that is permitted (Zikmund, 2000).
Getting an access in overt research can be quite a trouble, especially when the access is not granted easily. It can be very time consuming as the people can be suspicious of the objectives of the researcher. It is not easy on the part of the participant to believe the researcher by approving to take a part in the research. The respondents may feel that the researcher is working as a spy for a competitor. Access can be gained by colleagues or friends who can provide the required help for the research. The researcher must be frank about the amount of time the research shall consume, since it will be the most frequently asked question when it comes to getting an access (Bryman and Bell, 2007).
Reactivity of the participants is a drawback in overt research. He may also not like the way the research is being conducted or the way he is being portrayed. When a participant is aware that he is being observed and studied, he may manipulate it thus confusing the researcher whether is it the natural behavior or because of the effect of the research (Dyer,C. 1995).
There is a certain extent of covertness in all forms of research. When it comes to ethics, the ethnographer has to show a level of respect even thought if the research is being conducted with the consent of the participant. Hence, it is essential to maintain privacy and anonymity of the respondent. There can be a degree of covertness even in terms of access. Even if a researcher tries to obtain an access by informing the respondents, there may still be chances of many people not informed about the fact that a research is conducted. Also, when the respondents learn that they are being studied in a covert research, they may react negatively since it was done without obtaining their consent. Hence it can be said that to some extent covertness can be found in other forms of participant observation (Ram,1994).
Hence it can be found that both the forms of participant observation, overt and covert do come with their set of strengths and weaknesses. On one side covert research can be beneficial as it helps to obtain the original data for the research of the ethnographer. But it also poses a problem of ethics in a serious way, which can be overcome to a greater extent in the case of overt research. However, overt research does face a major problem in terms of access, which at times is difficult to obtain. Reactivity is not an issue in covert since the participants are not informed about the research, although it can be a trouble for an overt approach.