Limitations for using participant observation to study truancy

8 August 2016

There are many strengths and limitations for using participant observation to study truancy. Truancy is defined as an unauthorised absence from school. Sociologists may want to investigate why truancy occurs, what anti-school subcultures are more likely to truant and what effect truancy has on pupils’ future careers or achievements. Participant observation is where the researcher takes part in the event that they are observing (in this case truanting) whilst observing it.

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There are two different types of participant observation, overt observation and covert observation. Overt observation is when the researcher would tell the pupils that they are being studied and makes sure he/she gets their permission before the observation occurs. This makes their research ethical, however truants may behave differently because they are being observed therefore giving unreliable results. This is called the Hawthorne effect. The other type of participant observation is covert studies. This means the truants wouldn’t be told they were being watched, so they are more likely to behave like they normally would.

This would give the researcher valid results, however this raises ethical concerns such as the right to withdraw and deception. A strength of participant observation when investigating truancy from school is that participants behave as they normally do so the data collected is valid. Results are usually valid compared to getting the students to fill out a questionnaire about truancy when there is no real way of telling if they are giving accurate answers. On the other hand a limitation of participant observation when investigating truancy from school is that it is time consuming.

Especially if the group is big, participant observation in the case of truancy can be seen to raise costs and waste more time as the truant may not even be present. The researcher will also not know who the truant is as there are no written statistics or evidence from the observations. If it is covertly observed, any important findings from the discussion in the truant group may be written down later by the researcher but can be written wrong or partially remembered, therefore the data collected is not entirely dependable which makes it difficult for data to be interpreted.

This could result in the researcher having to spend more time in school to catch up with the truants and consuming more time raising practical issues. However if it was to be an overt observation then data may be openly recorded giving in depth data that is reliable. Another great strength would be the detail and depth of knowledge that the researcher obtains from using participant observation (in this case to study truancy), especially in covert situations.

This would provide plenty of qualitative information. This type of research has been the source of some of the most striking and valuable studies in sociology. For example; Hey (1997) used participant observation to study girls’ friendships in two London schools. Hey suggests that feminist researchers have a tendency to romanticize girls’ friendships, to view them through the celebratory lens of girls’ capacity for sharing, caring and mutual support.

She concluded girls can be seen to be engaged in patterns and practices of friendship that are fuelled by tensions and con? ict as much as support and care. A limitation would be the ethical issues that emerge from doing the observation. Researchers need to be aware and be considerate of the issues the issues that appear such as child protection/abuse. To gather relevant information; the researcher will have to ask the truants why they truant but there may be cases where the child is truanting because of problems such as bullying or disputes.

For this reason they constantly truant, furthermore the child might not want to answer the question as he/she may get upset or offended. Overall I believe that using participant observation whether it is covert or overt is a decent way to study truancy. Although it has many limitations such as ethical issues or that it is time consuming, it also has its strengths too such as the depth of knowledge and qualitative data you receive from asking the pupils questions like why they truant or simply their point of view.

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