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Example Answer for Question 5 Paper 3: A Level Sociology, June 2017 (AQA)


Last updated 22 Jun 2017

Q5 (10 marks)

An overt participant observation is a method favoured by interpretivist sociologists who are keen to obtain valid and meaningful data which is often very rich and detailed. One advantage of choosing overt participant observation as a source of data compared with covert participation could relate to the validity of the study. Many researchers would otherwise be forced to rely on their memory to report back the events they had observed across the course of the day and this could mean the results suffer in terms of their validity as they may provide an incomplete or inaccurate source of data – as the researcher is unable to take notes or otherwise record their observations as to do so would potentially reveal their identity as a researcher. This could have serious implications for the study as participants would potentially withdraw or the researcher themselves could be put at risk (for example in the case of James Patrick and his study of Glasgow gangs). If the research were overt however, the researcher would be free to record data openly and this would ensure they had a sound body of information on which to draw conclusions. However critics might argue that the validity of the research would already be compromised as the knowledge that they are being observed may result in some individuals behaving unnaturally (The Hawthorne Effect).


A second advantage of choosing overt participant observation as a source of data when compared with covert participant observation is that there are fewer ethical concerns. In her overt study of the ‘Moonies’, Eileen Barker was free to ask probing questions without causing offence or discomfort or risking harm to herself or others. Whereas in Macintyre’s undercover researcher into violent and anti-Semitic Chelsea football hooligans his cameraman was harmed, which would have led to him curtailing his questioning for fear of ‘blowing his cover’. Without such restraints, Barker could ask a greater number and range of questions in order to clarify the accuracy of her data. The additional ethical imperative to offer informed consent does however risk invalidating the data produced by overt participant observation, due to the Hawthorne effect. Participants know they are being studied and so may prefer to give socially desirable answers rather than truthful ones. 

Please Note: These answers have been produced without the knowledge of the mark scheme and merely reflect my attempt at producing a model answer on the day of the exam.

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