Orientation Observation In-depth interviews Document analysis and semiology Conversation and discourse analysis Secondary Data Surveys Experiments Ethics Research outcomes



Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2017

Page updated 29 May, 2017

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2017, Researching the Real World, available at
All rights belong to author.


A Guide to Methodology

3. Observation

3.1 Introduction
3.2 Aspects

3.2.1 Extent of participation (observer role)
3.2.2 Degree of openness
3.2.3 Explanation of purpose
3.2.4 Degree of obtrusiveness
3.2.5 Active or passive
3.2.6 Length and frequency of observation
3.2.7 Focus of observation
3.2.8 Summary of aspects

3.3 Methodological approaches
3.4 Access
3.5 Recording data
3.6 Analysing observational or ethnographic data
3.7 Summary

3.2 Aspects

3.2.3 Explanation of purpose

The degree of openness also maps closely to what kind of explanation you provide about the research. You may be completely honest about what you are doing, the explanation may be partially true but adapted to ensure co-operation, you may provide a deceitful explanation concealing your true purpose, or provide no explanation at all. The explanation of purpose and the degree of secrecy raise ethical issues (see Section 10).

Researchers sometimes only tell the members of the group that they are writing a book or article about the area, as Whyte (1943) did in his study of an area of Boston.

Sometimes the real activities of the researcher may only be known to a sub-set of the subject group (usually including group leaders). Whyte (1943), for example, told Doc, the leader of the gang, that he was ‘writing a book about street corner life’; Doc then vouched for Whyte with the rest of the gang. Such an approach can lead to problems when the research is published. Doc was upset and felt betrayed by the way that the activities of the gang were reported in Street Corner Society.

Reporting can be a problem. Muriel Saville-Troike (2003, p. 91) argued simply that:

There are some data that should go unreported if they are likely to be damaging to individuals or the group. Whenever the subjects of research are human beings, there are ethical limits on scientific responsibility for completeness and objectivity which are not only justified but mandated. Furthermore, information which is given confidentially must be kept in confidence.

However, in some studies, of deviant activity for example, very little would be reported if the researcher adhered to this rubric. The reporting, in the last instance needs to be ethical, in the public interest, and taking into account the feelings of the community where possible. Sensitive data may best be reported anonymously. It is not the job of a social researcher to act as a sensationalist reporter.

In some cases, the research is deceptive. Silvestre, Gehl, Encandela and Schelzel (2000), for example, used actors to check out services for HIV patients and Goode(1996) used bogus personal advertisements to investigate courtship.

Sometimes it is a matter of practicality; it is not usually feasible to let everyone in a large organisation know what isgoing (Punch, 1986), nor is it desirable if the research is attempting to uncover the unofficial or informal practices of an organisation (Shulman, 1994).



Next 3.2.4 Degree of obtrusiveness