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 Detachment and over-identification

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

3.2.5 Active or passive
Participant observers can take an active or passive (or neutral) role in an observation setting. An active researcher is one that engages with a group or community in such a ways as to impact directly on the activities of the research. A passive participant, although involved, has a neutral effect on the actions, beliefs and understandings of the research subjects.

A researcher cannot be present in a social setting without playing some part in it, whether as a secret or open observer. Most participant observation researchers argue that it is important to adopt as neutral a role as possible to avoid directly affecting group activities. This view suggests that the researcher should avoid being involved in determining group decisions, either directly or indirectly, and should not play any leadership role. Whyte (1943), for example, was concerned when Doc, the leader of the gang, indicated that he had always acted on impulse until Whyte joined them. Now Doc tended to think what Whyte would do in the circumstances before suggesting a plan of action to the other gang members. Although not making the decisions, Whyte’s presence clearly had an indirect impact on what happened through his unintended influence on the group leader.

Other researchers are less concerned about playing a neutral role. Westwood (1984) was a packer in a factory and as such had a flexible and uninfluential job. However, on occasion during social events she became annoyed by the constant sexism and made her position clear. To some extent this rubbed off on to the other women and affected their reactions to sexist activity. Westwood did not see this as a problem of ‘contamination’.

However, researchers in field roles should be aware of their actions and consider the possible effects these actions may have on the field under investigation and on the findings.

Top Detachment and over-identification
Passivity in a participant observation setting, however, is different from detachment. A passive role means playing a part while observing but trying not to unduly influence the setting. This is different from observers who attempt to be detached from the experiences of the group with whom they are participating and, in so doing, create an abstracted account of what takes place. For example, Kevin Hetherington (2000) undertook a study of travellers in the UK and is criticized for his detachment by others who have undertaken similar studies:

Moreover, while he used the techniques of interviewing and participant observation, his account seems to be limited by originally being a case study (Hetherington, 2000: vii) and he often gives the impression of being disengaged. Another commentator (Dearling, 1999: 4) suggests that this detachment has produced a ‘theoretical and academicised’ account which distorts Travellers’ lifestyle and tells us little about the realities that Travellers face. For me, the account is rather esoteric. It appears reminiscent of Hebdige’s semiotic ‘readings’ of youth styles and one is left wondering at times, as Hebdige (1979: 139) did about his own work, whether Travellers would recognize themselves reflected in the book. (Martin, 2002, p. 728)

Conversely, there is a problem of over-identification with the research subjects, Hobbs’ (1988) relationship with the petty criminals he was observing was more sympathetic and involved than the relationship he had with the police. In part, this was due to the racism and sexism displayed by the police respondents, which Hobbs found difficult to accept. Thus the data from the police was not as detailed as that from the petty criminals.


Next 3.2.6 Length and frequency of observation