An example of participant observation

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An example of participant observation

William Whyte

Street Corner Society, 1955

Whyte's study is a classic of research in the P.O. tradition. It is a study of young men from an inner city Italian community in Boston, USA. All observation involves the selection of data, but in P.O. the observer is very much influenced by what is presented to him/her. This will depend, very much, on how s/he is seen by the group being studied. Whyte illustrates some of these problems of data collection and observer role.

The spring of 1937 provided me with an intensive course in participant observation. I was learning how to conduct myself, and I learned from various groups, particularly from the Norton Street Gang.

I soon found that people were developing their own explanations about me: I was writing a book about Cornerville. This might seem entirely too vague an explanation, yet it sufficed. I found that my acceptance in the district depended on the personal relationships I developed far more than upon any explanations I might give. Whether it was a good thing to write a book about Cornerville depended entirely on people's opinions of me personally. If I was alright, then my project was alright; if I was no good, then no amount of explanation could convince them that the book was a good idea.

Of course people did not satisfy their curiosity about me simply by questions that they expressed to me directly. They turned to Doc, for example, and asked him about me. Doc then answered the questions and provided any reassurance that was needed.

While I worked more closely with Doc than with any other individual, I always sought out the leader in whatever group I was studying. I wanted not only sponsorship but also more active collaboration with the study. Since these leaders had the sort of position in the community that enabled them to observe much better than the followers what was going on, and since they were, in general, more skillful observers than the followers, I found that I had much to learn from a more active collaboration with them.

In my interviewing methods I had been instructed not to argue with people or pass moral judgements upon them. This fell in with my own inclinations. I was glad to accept people and be accepted by them. However, this attitude did not come out so much in the interviewing, for I did little formal interviewing. I sought to show this interested acceptance of the people and the community in my everyday participation.

I learned to take part in the street corner discussions on baseball and sex. This required no special training, since the topics seemed to be matters of almost universal interest. I was not able to participate so actively in the discussions of horse racing. I did begin to follow the races in a rather general and amateur way. I am sure it would have paid me to devote more study to the Morning Telegraph and other racing sheets, but my knowledge of baseball at least insured that I would not be left out of the street corner conversations.

Street Corner Society, 1955

While I avoided expressing opinions on sensitive topics, I found that arguing on some matters was simply part of the social pattern and that one could hardly participate without joining in the argument. I often found myself involved in heated but good-natured arguments about the relative merits of certain major league ball players and managers. Whenever a girl or a group of girls would walk down the street, the fellows on the corner would make mental notes and later would discuss their evaluations of the females. These evaluations would run largely inn terms of shape, and here I was glad to argue that Mary had a better 'build' than Anna, or vice versa. Of course, if any of the men on the corner happened to be personally attached to Mary or Anna, no searching comments would be made, and I too, would avoid this topic.

Sometimes I wondered whether just hanging on the street corner was an active enough process to be dignified by the term 'research'. Perhaps I should be asking these men questions? However, one has to learn when to ask questions and when not to question, as well as what questions to ask.

Street Corner Society, 1955

I learned this lesson one night in the early months when I was with Doc in Chichi's gambling joint. A man from another part of the city was regaling us with a tale of the organisation of gambling activity. I had been told that he had once been a very big gambling operator, and he talked knowingly about many interesting matters. He did most of the talking, but the others asked questions and threw in comments, so at length I began to feel that I must say something in order to be part of the group. I said; 'I suppose the cops were all paid off?' The gambler's jaw dropped. He glared at me. Then he denied vehemently that any policeman had been paid off and immediately switched the conversation to another subject. For the rest of that evening I felt very uncomfortable.

The next evening, Doc explained the lesson of the previous evening. 'Go easy on that who, what, when, where stuff Bill. You ask those questions and people will clam up on you. If people accept you, you can just hang around and you'll learn the answers in the long run without even having to ask the question.

I found that this was true. As I sat and listened, I learned the answers to questions that I would not even had the sense to ask if I had been getting my information solely on an interviewing basis. I did not abandon questioning altogether, of course. I simply learned to judge the sensitiveness of the question and my relationship to the people so that I only asked a question in a sensitive area when I was sure that my relationship to the people involved was very solid.

At first, I concentrated upon fitting in to Cornerville, but a little later I had to face the question of how far I was to immerse myself in the life of the district. I bumped into that problem one evening as I was walking down the street with the Nortons. Trying to enter into the spirit of the small talk, I cut loose with a string of obscenities and profanity. The walk came to a momentary halt as they all stopped to look at me in surprise. Doc shook his head and said: 'Bill, you're not supposed to talk like that. That doesn't sound like you.'

As I became accepted by the Nortons and by several other groups, I tried to make myself pleasant enough so that people would be glad to have me around. And, at the same time, I tried to avoid influencing the group, because I wanted to study the situation as unaffected by my presence as possible. Thus throughout my Cornerville stay, I avoided accepting office or leadership positions in any of the groups with a single exception. At one time I was nominated as secretary of the Italian Community Club. My first impulse was to decline the nomination, but then I reflected that the secretary's job is normally considered simply a matter of dirty work - writing the minutes and handling the correspondence. I accepted and found that I could write a very full account of the progress of the meeting as it went on under the pretext of keeping notes for the minutes.

  • He had to learn how to conduct himself.
  • Acceptance in the district depended on the personal relationships.
  • If he was alright, then his project was alright.
  • Not to argue with people or pass moral judgements upon them.
  • Avoid expressing opinions on sensitive topics.
  • One has to learn when to ask questions and when not to question, as well as what questions to ask.
  • You'll learn the answers in the long run without even having to ask the question.
  • You can learn the answers to questions that you would not even have had the sense to ask.
  • Notice that acting on these insights all contributed to increasing the validity of Whyte's work and they can be claimed as positive benefits associated with qualitative research methods.