Unobtrusive Measure and Participant observation


Unobtrusive Measure and Participant Observation

There is an advantage to the analysis of existing statistics. Such a mode of observation avoids one of the inherent problems of most social research methods: the effect of the study on that which is being studied. Clearly, analyzing suicide statistics has no influence whatever on the suicides themselves, whereas, by comparison, interviewing someone who was standing on the top of a tall tower or sitting with his head in a gas oven might conceivably influence whether or not the suicide occurred.

In recent years, Eugen Webb and his colleague are drawn attention to a variety of unobtrusive measures: methods for observing and measuring social phenomena while having little or no impact on that which is being measured. These social scientists have shown that scientific ingenuity is almost limitless.

Unobtrusive Measure

Unobtrusive measures, however, involve the use of non-reactive sources, independent of the presence of the researcher, and include documentary evidence, physical evidence, and archival analysis. The term archive derives from the ancient Greek action, which means a house that is the residence of the superior magistrates, the archons, those that command. This house was where official documents were stored and where the archons acted as both guardians and interpreters of the documents. Here, the principle was created that archives require that documents are stored in one place.

These archives exist in a wide variety of formats and can consist of files, maps, drawings, films, sound recordings, and photographs. While libraries tend to provide access to published materials, archives hold unique unpublished records. But, as Sleeman (2002) points out, with the growth of electronic environments such as the Internet, what is "unique" and "published" or "unpublished" is increasingly blurred. Web pages, for example, can contain links to many other sites or pages, challenging the notion of a document as an integral and independent record.

As we have seen, interactive measures carry with them various inherent problems, such as the dangers of interviewer bias, the possibility of research tools of questionable. Unobtrusive measures, because they are dealing with "dead" data, in principle, are unlikely to face the risk of reactive measurement effects.

But, as we shall see, unobtrusive measures pose other risks if used on their own. Some materials, for example, tend to survive better than others, so their representativeness is open to question. To ensure reliability, it is often prudent to use unobtrusive measures in conjunction with other approaches.

Types of Unobtrusive Measures

In this section, we will look at various types of unobtrusive measures and how they can be of value to the researcher.

1. Physical measures

From the prehistoric cave paintings of early man to the Great Wall of China, medieval cathedrals, or the discarded fast-food containers of modern times, human beings have left behind physical evidence of their existence. According to Webb et al ., (1966), these physical or trace measures can be divided into four broad categories: natural and controlled accretion measures, and natural and controlled erosion measures.

2. Document: running records
Documentsaresomeofthemost frequently used unobtrusive measures and include a wide variety of organizational and institutional documents, and state financial, political, and legal records.

3. Document: episodic records
In contrast to running records that tend to be in the public domain, episodic records are discontinuous and tend to be private. Hence, they are often more difficult to access. Webb et al ., (1966) suggest three main classes: sales records, industrial and institutional records, and personal documents. To these, we can add visual and mass media records, and institutional investigations.

4. The new digital archives
So far, we have looked at quite traditional forms of unobtrusive measures, many of which include the collection of documents (of various descriptions), usually located in one place. But because of problems of access, many document archives are under-utilized by researchers. After all, if the archive that you need is hundreds or even thousands of kilometers away, you are going to have to do some serious personal planning to see it. The growth of the Internet and the World Wide Web, however, is changing this. It is also worth considering another new and digital source of information closed-circuit television, as yet another modern source of unobtrusive information.

Participant Observation

Participant observation is qualitative and derives from the work of social anthropology earlier in the twentieth century. Its emphasis is on discovering the meanings that people attach to their actions. By contrast, structured observation (non-participant) is quantitative and is more concerned with the frequency of those actions.

Participant observation
is where the researcher attempts to participate fully in the lives and activities of subjects and thus becomes a member of their group, organization, or community. This enables the researcher to share their experiences by not merely observing what is happening but also feeling it. Participant observation often requires months or years of intensive work because the researcher needs to become accepted as a natural part of the culture to ensure that the observations are of the natural phenomenon.

Participant observation is a research method most closely associated with ethnographic methodology and has its origins in British anthropology and the Chicago School of sociology. The central intent of this method is to generate data through observing and listening to people in their natural setting and to discover their social meanings and interpretations of their own activities. Part of this process is the reporting of the researcher's own experiences, feelings, fears, anxieties, and social meanings when engaged with people in the field. With participant observation, the researcher becomes a member of the group being researched and so begins to understand their situation by experiencing it. The researcher becomes "immersed" in the research setting to share and experience people's lives to learn about their symbolic world. This symbolic framework was first developed within a school of sociology known as symbolic interactionism.

Participant observation can be contrasted with research using a questionnaire where it is often not possible to verify whether people are telling the truth or if their perceptions of their own behavior or attitudes are accurate. In contrast, with participant observation, it can be possible to interpret some of the subtleties of meaning in the data. Most organizations, for example, and particularly large ones, will contain a variety of social groups, each of which has, to a certain extent, its own norms, standards, attitudes, and even culture and language. Contrast the cultures of those who work in the human resources department with those who work in security. Working amongst groups may reveal a whole set of norms and attitudes that would simply not emerge from more traditional research methods.

Methods of Participant Observation

A variety of methods are common in qualitative measurement. In fact, the methods are largely limited by the imagination of the researcher. Here we discuss a few of the more common methods.

1. Direct observation
Direct observation occurs when the observer is physically present and personally monitors what takes place. This approach is very flexible because it allows the observer to react to and report subtle aspects of events and behaviors as they occur. S/he is also free to shift places, change the focus of the observation, or concentrate on unexpected events if they occur.

2.Indirect observation

Indirect observation occurs when the recording is done by mechanical, photographic, or electronic means. For example, a special camera that takes one frame every second may be mounted in a department of a large store to study customer and employee movement. Indirect observations less flexible than direct observation but is also much less biasing and maybe a less erratic inaccuracy. Electronic recording devices, which have improved in quality and declined in cost, are being used more frequently in observation research.

3. Practitioner researcher
A practitioner-researcher is someone who undertakes research within and often on behalf of his or her organization. As a researcher, then, they are in an ideal position to understand the culture, strengths, and weakness of the organization, as well as its developing needs. If the research is sponsored by the organization, and especially if sponsored by senior management, then the practitioner-researcher may often have good access to records and other information.

4. Variations in duration
In truly ethnographic studies, social science researchers have spent, literally, years living among the people they are studying. Clearly, this is neither practical nor necessary for most social science research. So, over what kind of time period should the observation take place? Patton (2002) states the obvious, that fieldwork should take as long as is necessary to get the job done. A study, for example, that set out to measure changes in people's attitudes to corporate restructuring would have to allow for observation before, during, and after the reorganization, thus taking many months, if not several years.

Participant Observation: Researcher Role

We have explained what participant observation is, but we have not explained clearly what participant-observers do. Several questions may have occurred to you. For example, should the participant-observer keep his or her purpose concealed? Does the participant-observer need to be an employee or an organizational member, albeit temporary? Can the participant-observer just observe? The answers here are not straightforward. The role you play, as a participant-observer will be determined by several factors. However, before examining those factors, we need to look at the different roles in which the participant-observer may be cast.

Gill and Johnson (1997) develop a fourfold categorization of the role the participant observer can adopt. The roles are:

1. Complete participant
The complete participant role sees you as the researcher attempting to become a member of the group in which you are performing research. You do not reveal your true purpose to the group members. You may be able to justify this role on pure research grounds in the light of your research questions and objectives.

2. Complete observer

Here too you would not reveal the purpose of your activity to those you were observing. However, unlike the complete participant role, you do not take part in the activities of the group.

3. Observer as a participant

You might adopt the role of the observer as a participant in an outward bound course to assist team building if you were attending to observe without taking part in the activities in the same way as the "real" candidates. In other words, you would be a spectator.

4. Participant as an observer

In the role of the participant as an observer, you reveal your purpose as a researcher. Both you and the subjects are aware of the fact that it is a fieldwork relationship. You are particularly interested to gain the trust of the group.

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