Exam-style Questions: Introduction

  1. Item

    It hardly needs emphasising how much the success of the participant observer's approach depends on his or her skill and personality.

    If these command the respect and friendship of those being observed, and if they are combined with an ability to interpret and describe what is seen, the method enables the presentation of a picture of social reality at once more vivid, complete and authentic than is possible with other methods. But any defects in his or her approach and ability can easily arouse suspicion, and so undermine the study.

    Participant observation is a highly individual technique.

    With reference to the Item and other sources evaluate the claim that in participant observation studies, what is gained in terms of validity is lost in reliability.

    (Marks available: 20)


    Answer outline and marking scheme for question: 1

    General Points

    • You must refer to the item.
    • You must provide information from your own knowledge.
    • You must explain the terms validity and reliability.
    • You must have an evaluation.

    What's in the item?

    • The emphasis on skill and personality.
    • The possibility of a more complete and authentic picture.
    • A highly individual technique.

    The item provides some reasons for thinking that participant observation will produce valid research. However, there are also suggestions as to why reliability is unlikely - for example, that the technique is highly individual.


    1. What makes reliability possible-clear instructions and agreed technique?
    2. Why is reliability not possible in participant observation - individualistic technique no agreed approach?
    3. Participant observation allows for empathy/subjective understanding.
    4. Reliability demands objectivity.
    5. Taking the role of the other.
    6. No clear method guide.
    7. In participant observation, personality of researcher is important.
    8. A gain in validity is far more important than reliability.

    Mark scheme:

    Give yourself 2 marks For a definitions of validity.
    Give yourself 2 marks For a definition of reliability.
    Give yourself 2 marks For explaining the importance of skill.
    Give yourself 2 marks For explaining the importance of personality.
    Give yourself 2 marks For explaining the importance of authenticity.
    Give yourself 2 marks For explaining the importance of individuality.
    Give yourself 4 marks For explaining why each of the above attributes hinder reliability.
    Give yourself 4 marks For explaining why the same attributes can improve validity.

    Give yourself 4 marks for an evaluation that:

    Basically agrees with the claim in the question and that explains why this is unavoidable because of the nature of PO which needs to be flexible and individualistic and that this works against reliability which it needs a consistent approach to a research problem

    Finally an extra 2 marks if you explain why validity is more important than reliability because validity is about meaning while reliability is only about consistent measurement.

    (Marks available: 20)

  2. Evaluate the view that participant observation is both unscientific and unethical.

    (Marks available: 20)


    Answer outline and marking scheme for question: 2


    • You need to explain what participant observation is. The theoretical tradition it comes from - interpretivism and the sort of data it is interested in collecting - qualitative.
    • You could explain that there are difficulties defining science but that certainly as regards the traditional view of science thee are some difficulties with P.O.
    • You can explain what ethics are.


    The traditional view of science argues that it has certain qualities not possessed by P.O. Science controls the variables to be measured and is sure of what those variables are. Scientific findings can be replicated and the method is reliable. The findings can be generalised.

    Clearly the nature of P.O. means that these qualities cannot be claimed by P.O. But then they are not sought by P.O. either. Methods must make sense in relation to the sort of data being sought. P.O. seeks qualitative data that is the result of insight and interpretation it is not founded on empirical evidence.

    More widely, it could be argued that science is about careful data collection, systematic observation and the establishment of understanding all these are sought by P.O. Also, crucially P.O. seeks validity, to accurately record and measure what it claims to measure and in this the most important of all scientific criteria it could claim some success.

    As regards ethics... Some P.O. may well be unethical particularly covert P.O., but it is hard to see why overt P.O. is unethical. Additionally, ethics are difficult ideas - they can vary from person to person. It cannot be assumed that science is ethical and clearly there are many examples of scientists or their findings being used in unethical ways.


    About as useful as comparing a fish to a bicycle. There are no bad methods only inappropriate use of a given method. Clearly the question concerning ethics can be answered, overall it is only covert P.O. that has ethical problems. As regards science, the question can be answered but should perhaps instead be re-formulated in terms of whether P.O. can produce worthwhile, informative data - which it clearly can.

    (Marks available: 20)