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 2012–2019

Page updated 25 January, 2019

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2019, Researching the Real World, available at
All rights belong to author.


A Guide to Methodology

3. Observation

3.1 Introduction
3.2 Aspects
3.3 Methodological approaches

3.3.1 Positivism and observation
3.3.2 Phenomenology and observation
3.3.3 Critical social research and observation Introduction Critical ethnography Observation to deconstruct culture Observation to deconstruct myths Observation in critical community studies

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

3.3 Methodological approaches

3.3.3 Critical social research and observation Critical ethnography
Although critical ethnography explores the subjects' meanings, it attempts to locate these within a broader setting. It sees meanings as cultural or structural. Meanings relate to the cultures or social structures in which people live and operate. What is important for critical ethnography, then, is that the probing of the subject's meanings is not the end of the story. The group or organisation does not operate in a vacuum but is affected by all sorts of aspects of the society it is in.

For example, the way that male pantry staff in Whyte's study (CASE STUDY Whyte (1949)) react to waitresses should not be seen simply as a function of the status hierarchy within the restaurant industry. For the critical ethnographer this is a reflection of wider patriarchal oppression of women by men. Simply to excuse it, as Whyte does, by suggesting that men feel uncomfortable in situations where women originate actions, is to miss the structural point. The broader context relates to the power that men exercise over women within a social structure that legitimates male domination.

In short, meanings are not just derived from within the group but are dependent upon broader social issues and processes that affect the interpretive process. The situating of meanings is done, not just to make sense of them, but to show how social structures and existing sets of power relationships shape the meanings. This is important. Furthermore, critical ethnography also assesses how meanings are developed in order to legitimate organisational practices or oppressive structures. In other words, a critical approach does not assume that meanings are constructed by individuals (through interaction) but that meanings are the response to much wider social, historical and structural conditions. Meanings, in short, are not independent of ideology. Critical ethnography has been used, for example, by Marxists, feminists and radical black researchers in their analysis of economic, gender and racial oppression.

Critical ethnography attempts to develop an understanding by locating detailed observational enquiry directly into a critical analysis of social structures. As Willis (1977) did in his study of what takes place in school that results in some pupils ending up in dead-end manual jobs (see CASE STUDY Willis (1977)).

For more detail on critical ethnography see Critical Social Research Section 1.4.2


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