Most participant observation research takes the form of a c.lse study, which is often an in depth multifaceted investigation of a single event. person. or social grouping (Feagin, Orum, and Sjoberg. 1991). However, a case study mily also involve multiple cases and is then referred to as a collective oise study (Stake. 1995). Whether the case is single or collective, most case studies require detailed. in-depth data collection involving multiple sources of rich information such as documents and records and the use of methods such as participant observation, unstructured or in-depth interviews. and life histories (Creswell. 1998). As they collect extensive amounts of data. the researchers seek to develop a detailed description of the case, to analyze the themes or issues that emerge. and to interpret or create their own assertions about the case (Stake. 1995). When do social scientists decide to do case studies? Initially. some researchers have only a general idea of what they wish to investigate. In other cases. they literally "back into" the research. They ma), Iind themselves close to interesting people or situations. For example, the anthropologist Elliot Liebow "backed into" his study of single, homeless women living in emergency shelters by becoming a volunteer at I shelter. As he got to know the women, Liebow became fascinated with their lives and survival strategies. Prior to Liebows research, most studies of the homeless focused primarily on men. These studies typically asked questions such as "How many homeless al'~ there?" and "What proportion of the homeless are chronically mentally ill?" By contrast. Liebow wanted to know more about the homeless women themselves. wondering such things as ·What are they carrying in those [shopping] bags?" (Coughlin, 1993: A8). Liebow spent the next four years engaged in participant observation research that culminated in his book Tell Them Who I Am (1993). In participant 'observation studies. the researcher must decide whether to let people know they are being studied.
After Liebow decided that he would like to take notes on informal conversations and conduct interviews with the women. he asked the shelter director and the women for permission and told them that he would like to 'write about them. Liebows findings are discussed in Chapter 5 ("Society. Social Structure. and Interaction"). Although some social scientists gain permission from their subjects, others fear that people wiU refuse to participate or will change their behavior if they know they are being observed. On the one hand, researchers who do not obtain consent from their subjects may be acting unethically. On the other hand. when subjects know they are being observed, they risk succumbing to the Hawthorne effect (discussed later in this chapter).
The next step is to gain the trust of participants. Liebow had previous experience in blending in with individuals he wanted to observe when he gained the trust of young, lower-class African American men who talked and passed time on an inr.er- "y street corner in Washington, the 1960s. In his classic study Tallys Corner (1967). Liebow described how he (as a thirty-seven-year-old white anthropology graduate student) played pool and drank beer with his subjects, While interacting with the men. Liebow gathered a large volume of data which led him to conclude that his subjects had created their own "society" after being unable to find a place in the existing one Lie bow found "insiders" t9 help him gain the trust of other participants in his research. In a participant observation study. you may wish to identify possible iliformallts-indi\'iduals who introduce you to others. give you suggestions about how to "get around" in the natural setting, and provide you with essential insider information on what you are observing. Informants are especially useful in the community study/ethnography fields