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
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 Observation to deconstruct myths
Observation is used by critical social researchers to reveal myths or taken-for-granteds. Revealing myths provides a basis for deconstructing dominant conceptions and paving the way for reconceptulaisations of social structures and processes.

Philip Schlesinger's (1978) analysis of the making of BBC News, which is an example of a critical study of how the content of mass media is produced, revealed the myth of BBC neutrality. Exploring this study we can see how 'traditional' qualitative methods, observation and informal interviews, are combined with a critical theoretical perspective.

Schlesinger spent time in studios observing how the News was produced at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) but he also linked his observations to a study of the structure, history and ideology of the BBC. From this, he was able to show how the BBC News reproduces 'dominant ideology'.

Schlesinger wanted to find out exactly how the news is compiled in the BBC newsrooms. He wanted to know what determines the stories that are included in the news and the importance given to each. He wanted to see if there was an underlying ideology and whether that led to a specific view of reality being projected through The News.

In addition to direct observation and interviews with BBC news staff, Schlesinger looked at the history of BBC news and the routines that news producers adopted. He examined prevailing myths about news production. Such myths included reporters' belief that they are more-or-less free to collect whatever news stories they think appropriate and the notion that news is somehow produced out of chaos without any noticeable organisational structure. Schlesinger showed that, in fact, news is produced in routine ways and that there are various control systems in operation, such as the process by which stories are allocated to reporters.

Schlesinger's detailed observations shattered the myths of freedom and chaos and he showed that the constraints in place are important in developing and maintaining the BBC's 'world view'. Central to this world view is the notion that news output is 'value-free', and thus unbiased. The result is that there is a 'desired identity' for news workers and all those who work on BBC News conform to it in one way or another. This 'desired' identity of BBC employees was subsequently shown to be 'required' when, in 1985, it was revealed that the government's internal security department (MI5) had an office in the BBC and were actively involved in vetting the selection of journalists and production staff.

However, the reporting of Northern Ireland in the 1990s stretched the credibility of the notion of impartiality. Coverage of Northern Ireland consisted mainly of reports of violence, taken out of context, which failed to analyse the historical roots of the Irish conflict. The treatment of Ireland showed that, while the BBC was not a simple tool of the ruling group (government, army and so on), it was constrained by them and is not entirely independent.

In examining news production, Schlesinger showed that, rather than being strictly impartial, the BBC reproduced the status quo. His study linked the process of news production to wider social factors, such as government policy and the need for the BBC to retain the myth of collective neutrality.

Asaf Darr (2006) used an observation study to critique the prevailing myths about selling. Using the work of sales engineers in the electronics markets of Silicon Valley he undermines contemporary popular stereotypes of the 'the Yankee peddler and the car salesman' (Darr, 2006, p. 2). As Bozkurt (2008, p. 783) states:

This is an invitation not only to go beyond cultural stereotypes around sales work, but also to complement and balance the widely argued view that 'salespeople and interactive service workers are being deskilled' (p. 7) during the transition of economies from manufacturing to services. Darr's book brings the other end of the range of sales work into the picture, where 'new forms of sales employ new sets of skills' (p. 7) and selling for some (though not all) involves the acquisition and employment of sophisticated socio-technical skills.

Darr uses observation from seven moths of fieldwork, including various interactions in an engineering boutique, at training sessions, at trade shows and shadowing during sales visits to at clients' workplaces. This is augmented by interviews with over 60 buyers and sellers. As Bozkurt (2008, p. 784) says:

What makes the theoretically persuasive argument genuinely engaging is the rich empirical data that supports it....The careful ethnographic eye at work provides us with much more than the structural features of sales work in mass and emergent technology markets; it captures the very concrete, everyday ways in which markets are shaped and skills are put to use in and through human interaction.

Darr compares the new 'socio-technical skill intensive sales work' of the emerging technology markets with standard mass-produced product sales, that require far less techical expertise and social skills. He focuses his ethnographic work on the the 'main junctures of the sales process' (Darr, 2006, p. 20), which includes search for sales partners, making sales ties, and maintaining sales relationships in the highly competitive computer market. In emerging technology markets for example, there is considerable uncertainty about who the clients are and making sales involves extensive technical negotiation with buyers seeking applications for specific projects.

In this way, Darr illustrates how selling has significantly changed and requires upskilling, not deskilling, and challenges taken-for-granted popular images of selling and also theoretical notions of the deskilling of the sales service sector.


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