Sociologists who are interested in observing social interaction as it occurs may use participant observation. Participant observation refers to the process of collecting data while being part of the activities of the group that the researcher is studying. As this definition states, the researcher gains insight into some aspect of social life by participating in what is going on while observing what is taking
Let's assume that you wanted to study how volunteers at a suicide prevention center learned how to counsel people by telephone. You might become a volunteer-in-training and attend the orientation sessions for volunteers, taking notes on how others responded to the information being provided and how various volunteers interacted with one another. Then you might serve as a "hotline" volunteer. not only seeking to help the people who called but also observing how the volunteers interacted with callers.Throughout this process, of course. you would have to be issues relating to ethics and with conducting research with human subjects, as discussed later in this chapter. What are the strengths of participant observation research? Participant observation generates more "inside" information than simply asking questions or observing from the outside. For example. to learn more about how coroners make a ruling of "suicide' in connection with a death and to analyze what. if an)'. effect such a ruling has on the accuracy of ·official" suicide statistics, sociologist Steve Taylor (J 982) engaged in participant observation at a coroner's office over a six month period.As he followed a number of cases from the initial report of death through the various stages of investigation. Taylor found that it was important to "be around" so that he could listen to the discussion of particular cases and ask the coroners questions. According to Taylor. intuition and guesswork playa much larger part in coroners' decisions than they are willing to acknowledge.
What are the limitations of participant observation research? This type of research requires time and expertise on the part of the researcher. who must be able to become a participant while still maintaining some distance from those being observed. Interpreting the results of this type of research also requires that the researchers distance themselves from people with whom they may have spent a great deal of time and with whom they developed personal relationships during the research project.