3.3 Methodological approaches Observation is a method of undertaking social research and can be used within a variety of epistemological and methodological approaches (Section 2). Although participant observation, for example, is often closely linked to interactionist approaches in sociology, it is by no means restricted to interactionism. As with any research method, it is the purpose and underlying philosophy that determines how the observational evidence is framed and used: for example, to provide descriptive data, to explore or develop theory, or to evaluate policy and practice.
Positivists use observation research:
• as a descriptive tool; • as the exploratory stage for further quantitative research; • for triangulation;
• to refine or evaluate policy intervention; • as a means of inductively deriving hypotheses to be tested by more 'rigorous' data collection; • as a means of testing hypotheses in the controlled environment of an experiment (see Section 9).
Phenomenological approaches tend to use observation:
• as a basis for generating theory; • to test theory;
• to identify subjects' meanings; • as a basis for empathetic interpretation; • as a means of deconstructing everyday life; • as a process of establishing identity; • as a means of discovering how communities operate.
Critical social researchers tend to use observation:
• to provide insights and rich description of social phenomena, which provide a basis for digging beneath surface appearances; • as evidence in the process of deconstructing social structures and aiding understanding of social formation; • to deconstruct culture; • to deconstruct myths;
• in critical community studies.