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 2012–2020

Page updated 29 April, 2020

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2020, Researching the Real World, available at
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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

Activity 3.3.1

3.3 Methodological approaches

3.3.3 Critical social research and observation Observation to deconstruct culture
Critical social researchers use observation to analyse the nature of social structures and aid understanding of social formation. This often involves the deconstruction of cultural settings in an attempt to show how culture relates to structure.

Critical ethnography usually starts by examining the social structure rather than taking it for granted. The ethnographic enquiry provides detailed data that helps to assess the structural analysis. However, this is not done by testing a hypothesis with a view to falsifying a theory (as a falsificationist might). There is a two-way development of understanding. The ethnographic material is used to re-examine the structural relationship and, at the same time, the structural analysis will help to make sense of the ethnographic data.

For example, Marshall (1986) (CASE STUDY Dixie's Place) addressed the work situation of low-paid service workers in the catering industry as one of blatant exploitation. Rather than simply reproducing a surplus-value explanation he wanted to examine the 'reality' of the work-place from the point of view of the employees. His observation of staff at 'Dixie's Place' showed that the workers were not dissatisfied nor were they resentful at being exploited. A Marxist analysis would suggest that, among other things, workers in a capitalist economy are alienated because of the division of labour that fragments the work process and undermines any creativity on the part of the worker. The workers are not only exploited but also find the work unfulfilling. They do not get any satisfaction from their work but are forced into it as a means of satisfying other needs. As soon as there is no compulsion to do the work it is 'avoided like the plague' (Marx, 1963, p. 124). Alienation refers not just to the unrewarding nature of the work but also to the capitalist setting where workers have no control over their labour. Thus a Marxist analysis does not seem to apply from the point of view of the workers in Marshall's study.

However, Marshall did not simply abandon the Marxist analysis (as a falsificationist might have) but attempted to discover if there was another way to account for the apparent contradiction between exploitation and satisfaction. One solution could have revolved around the 'informal economy', that is, that the low pay was compensated for by the 'perks' and 'fiddles' that were condoned by the paternalistic owner. However, the extent of the 'perks' was insufficient to compensate for poor pay.

Marshall examined the work-place culture and found, as he examined it more closely, that it effectively denied the 'work' component of the employment. Work and leisure became merged into each other. Furthermore, the workers did not feel alienated because they felt in control of their labour. They were also not restricted to a single job. Everybody was expected to help out anywhere in the restaurant as and when the need arose.

Marshall thus developed the exploitation theory by looking at the superstructural relationships embodied in the work-place culture. Capitalism had triumphed in turning exploitation into a readily accepted way of life by blurring the edges between work and leisure for the employees in the restaurant. It had created the illusion that their flexibility, which greatly benefited the owner, gave them control over their work situation.

The role of the critical ethnographer is thus to keep alert to structural factors while probing meanings. This is aided by identifying contradictions and ideology. Contradictions can be seen in the difference between what people say and do, on the one hand, and their actual circumstances on the other. Ideology is reflected in the way stereotypes, myths, or dominant conceptualisations guide or legitimate respondents' actions and meanings (see Section 2.4.2). By focusing on contradictions and the way ideology is used to make oppressive situations appear acceptable, critical ethnography is able to relate ethnographic material to wider structural processes. For example, Marshall showed how the workers at Dixie's Place convinced themselves that they were not being exploited because they were not really working.

Activity 3.3.1
Look at any ethnographic study of work-place activity such as Working Lives in Catering by Yiannis Gabriel (1988), All Day Everyday by Sallie Westwood (1984), Women On the Line by Ruth Cavendish (1982), Working For Ford by Huw Beynon (1973). Show clearly how the ethnographic work is undertaken. Outline which approach to ethnography is adopted in the study.

This activity involves some reading and then analysis of a significant text.
This would be best done as a small group activity with the reading prepared in advance of a discussion session.


In similar vein, Gottfried and Graham (1993) set out to explore 'the day-to-day relationships among workers, and between workers and managers, in a Japanese automobile assembly plant' in the US. Although they explored the culture of the factory, their study was not, though, focused on providing a close-up view of the interactions but was concerned with how a workplace culture was developed by management as part of ensuring compliant and engaged workers. In particular, they wanted to see how the supposed sexual equality within the plant was subverted by the development of gendered subcultures that used 'sex-games' to 'articulate gender differences'.

Gottfried and Graham's data derived from six-months participant observation, informal conversations with 150 co-workers and company documents. The research shows how management's attempt to create a specific work-place culture is affected by the emergence of gender-based subcultures. Instead of the fragmented production-line, specialist-task approach found in 'Fordist' assembly-line working, post-Fordist approaches emphasise flexibility, team working and self-regulation of the work process. Gottfried and Graham noted that the work team 'operated as both a political and ideological control mechanism aimed at producing a co-operative work culture' (Gottfried and Graham, 1993, p. 612).

At one level this team approach involved mandatory participation in management-organised group activities, at another it placed the onus on the acceptance of team responsibilities, which were designed to fit management aims, viz. to increase work effort. The group was given responsibility for its own quality control as well as the quantity of the output but, in so doing, the members of each team were expected to maximise their effort for the good of the work group. Gottfried and Graham (1993, p. 613) noted that 'in organising work around a team, management attempted to circumvent the natural formation of small informal work groups, a traditional mechanism of worker solidarity'. The company also used other mechanisms to minimise worker-management differences (workers were called Associates, everyone wore the same uniform and ate in the same canteen) and to encourage commitment to the team and, through that, the company (an analogy with a basketball team and the need to beat the opposition). In short, the team approach was designed as a less confrontational way of reproducing capitalist hegemony than the traditional hierarchical Fordist shop-floor structure. However:

The team provided a capitalist framework for structuring interactions that obscured class relations and that fostered worker and management co-operation. Yet the team proved only partially successful in gaining workers' co-operation and creating a cooperative work culture. Workers appropriated company metaphors and symbols and put them to their own purposes as they formed gender-based subcultures on the shop floor. (Gottfried and Graham, 1993, p. 614)

Despite the espoused gender equality of the company, 'women were deemed unsuitable for higher-paying production jobs requiring either high skill levels or dangerous working conditions'. However, the sexual division of labour 'was only partially the result of both formal and informal management practices' (Gottfried and Graham, 1993, pp. 616–7). The male workers reasserted 'their masculinity' by reinforcing 'traditional sexual divisions of labour by defining and preserving certain aspects of technology and manual skill as male domains' and 'men and women upheld these distinctions in job rotation' (Gottfried and Graham, 1993, p. 617–8). 'Typically the women performed devalued tasks' which the men avoided because they were ''unskilled' or easy, and in turn, monopolised the operation of 'heavy' machines''. Gottfried and Graham (1993, p. 618) noted, though, that: 'Sex differences in the tasks performed were ideological constructions. When it suited them, the men would allow women to perform jobs that required dangerous work'.

Gottfried and Graham (1993, p. 619) illustrated ways in which hegemonic masculinity was developed and how woman also connived in this as they 'appropriated sexual meanings and practices to forge a sub-culture on an overall hegemonic masculine terrain'. They did this by constructing 'solidarity through 'women's talk' and the celebration of woman-centred events' such as weddings and marital relations, through meetings in women-only spaces (such as the toilets). Women production workers, who 'saw themselves in opposition to both male production workers and clerical workers' established social networks that crossed official team boundaries (Gottfried and Graham, 1993, p. 620).

The emergence of gender-based subcultures acted as impediments to both worker and gender solidarity by underlining gender and work differences.... Participation in sex games and the resultant subcultures served as mechanisms of hegemonic control by enforcing the team rules of post-Fordist production. These subcultures...allowed for a gender-specific ensemble of players to mobilize resistance to immediate production demands in the plantů. The form resistance took depended on the intermediation of gender and class interests.... As people 'produce culture' at work, they generate a set of practices and ideas that run counter to hegemonic ones, setting up alternative ways of 'making sense' (Cockburn, 1983:167)... (Gottfried and Graham, 1993, pp. 621–2)

In some instances, such as the imposition of overtime by management, the men and women production workers acted in different ways. Yet other circumstances, such as a unilateral management decision about shift rotation, resulted in men and women joining 'forces in order to mount a class struggle' (Gottfried and Graham, 1993, p. 623). However, Gottfried and Graham noted that resistance was transitory and in relation to specific practices. It did not fundamentally challenge the hegemonic capitalist ethos. The workers used the team structure as their legitimation for action, turning the management ethos back on themselves. However, while appearing to be resistant, management were able to assimilate worker demands while they 'did not interfere with the expansion of capital accumulation'. As they state: 'Whether gender and/or class motivated resistance, it tended to accommodate, and thereby reproduce, dominant class and gender structures' (Gottfried and Graham, 1993, p. 623). For example, the result of sex games is that, at times, workers overproduce to demonstrate their male superiority, which serves to reinforce the management ethos.

Although it appears that the imposition of a workplace culture acts as a means of top-down control, the implementation, in practice, leads to different outcomes: notably gendered sub-cultures within and across the team environment. The separate work cultures, on the one hand create a basis for resistance to management control and on the other result in opposition between genders within the working class.

Hobbs (1988) study of crime and policing in the East End of London is an ethnographic study that utilised participant observation and in-depth interviewing to looks at the culture of London's East End and its relationship with the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the Metropolitan Police. Hobbs argued that the way the CID operates in the East End of London is very different from the way they operate in other areas. This difference is because of the culture of the East End. This culture is characterised by features such as independence, masculinity, acceptance of 'deviant identities' and, importantly, 'an entrepreneurial ability', which does not fit well with traditional notions of working-class culture. His model of an entrepreneurial working class culture (a shadow economy) is a departure from the routine 'them and us' picture of class relationships in Britain.

Hobbs shows how the police have adopted and adapted this entrepreneurial culture. Thus, Hobbs argues, the economic history of the East End of London has resulted in what he calls a 'trading culture', which is both accepting of petty crime and also affects the CID detectives' everyday practice. Hobbs then utilises this concept of 'trading culture' to analyse his informants understandings of their lives. However, he is not just interested in the meanings that the research subjects have, instead he uses this to reveal 'both formal and informal control strategies and the coercive regulatory power of the market place' (Hobbs, 1988, p. 1). The study is not, then, just about the relationship of sub-cultures to the dominant culture but also about the sociology of policing, and the study of class relations and organisations.

Anne Campbell's (1984) study of female gangs (see CASE STUDY Female Street Gangs) addresses the taken-for-granted view of female gangs as a 'problem' and as pathological and counter-cultural. Not only does Campbell provide a detailed account of the culture of these gangs but she also suggests that the mythology around them misses the point. Which leads into the next section on deconstructing myths.


Next Observation to deconstruct myths