When thinking about observations, many people think of a guy judging people in his notepad. But there are some researchers who use participant observation as a way to gain data. This style of observation consists of the researcher joining their subjects in their activities overtly or covertly, in other words “putting yourself in their shoes”. But is this covert observation a good way to collect data?
When conducting observations, every researcher wishes for natural behaviour, but this is hard to come by when people know you’re watching them. Many subjects will experience a reactivity, otherwise known as the Hawthorne Effect, whereby people will change or improve their behaviour, due to the fact that they are aware of being watched. Covert observation ensures that people act as they usually would, even when being watched, as they are unaware that they are being studied. This, therefore, reduces demand characteristics and increases the validity of data. By taking part in the activities and culture of the subjects, researchers can gain a much better quality of understanding of how things work, and why certain people do what they do. Participant observation gives first hand insight into the lives of others, and a much deeper knowledge than what can be gaged by simple surveys. This can form the basis for further research into certain cultures, especially from those covertly observed who wouldn’t otherwise consent to being studied. However, this of course leads onto the problem of lack of informed consent. If people are being watched secretly then chances are they haven’t agreed to take part in the study. This breaches ethical guidelines, and many people see this as a complete no-go area. But there are other experiments that have broken guidelines, yet are deemed okay if the participants are fully debriefed afterwards, so why shouldn’t covert observations be treated the same way? So long as subjects are debriefed and they give their consent for their data to be used, I feel it’s okay to observe covertly (granted it’s not the most ethical way).
However, as with everything, covert participant observation has its disadvantages. Firstly, it’s time-consuming and costly, which is a massive pain in the arse, but it can also be dangerous. For the researchers who feel the need to study gang violence (not so sure I’d fancy that job), covert participant observation essentially involves them joining a gang, and doing their best to be a member. This can result in the researcher being involved in dangerous or illegal activities. An example of this type of research is “A Glasgow Gang Observed” by “James Patrick” (not real name). This involved Patrick entering a gang which carried weapons and often fought other rivals. Although keeping his identity hidden for four months, Patrick eventually had to leave when the violence became too unacceptable for him, and he began to feel threatened. Of course not all groups are violent and dangerous, and so some researchers may “go native” if they accept the group’s culture. This term refers to the researcher becoming a full-time member of the group, which can lead to a bias of notes, as the researcher may portray the group in a different way, and therefore negatively affect the validity of the data.
Personally, I feel that covert participant observation is a great way to collect data, as it ensures what is being observed is natural behaviour, and can give a great depth into the understanding of different groups and cultures. However, I think it is absolutely necessary to fully debrief subjects and gain their consent to use their data, in order to regain a little bit of ethics back. Also, so long as researchers don’t go to the extremes of terribly violent gangs, or fantastically brilliant groups, there should be very little chance of danger or a complete change of lifestyle for the researcher.
Thanks for reading