Participant Observation

Participant Observation
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    Participation Observation  Khoo Ying Hooi 1. Introduction The research method chosen in this thesis is qualitative. It was decided that the  best method for this thesis was to opt for qualitative research. The choice was made  based on the nature of the thesis that intended to explore the impacts of social movements on the political change, therefore a qualitative research is most appropriate for the kind of research undertaken. This argument was supported by Berg (1995), he highlighted method to be used in such research should be both consist elements of flexibility and sensitivity to the social context as it is best to gain an understanding of the phenomenon under studied. Qualitative methodology is also  particularly favorable in term of the study that needs exploration about the rapid changing nature of politics. The basis of qualitative research establishes the interpretive approach to social reality and in the description of the processes of such movement that constantly changes in many ways. Creswell (1998: 99) defines qualitative research as a process that requires the traditional method of inquiry so that to gain a better understanding in any study that intends to explore a social or human problem. For the purpose of this thesis, firstly, a comprehensive and holistic picture of the phenomenon is established. Secondly, through various qualitative research methods, key issues are identified in order to form the arguments for the thesis. An inductive approach to conducting qualitative research was found to be appropriate and suitable for this exploratory and descriptive thesis, as it seeks to create an understanding between the research objectives and the summary findings derived from mainly interviews and analyzing social media, as well as secondary    sources. Hancock (2002: 9) highlights the richness of data and deeper understanding into certain phenomena under study as among the benefits of using these approaches. The causal relationship is recognized as one of the persistence dilemma in the area of social science research (Porta & Diani, 1995: 273). Therefore , the views of Dreyer (1993: 219) and Marshall and Rossman (1989: 9) are supported as qualitative research methods is the essential modes of inquiry especially for the study of social sciences  because the key question in this thesis is to show how the actions of a protest movement could possibly trigger the change in the political arena. 2. Background on Participant Observation Originally,    participant observation is a data collection method that is generally used in anthropological studies, especially when it concerns ethnographic studies (Kawulich, 2005). In a simpler word, participant observation refers to where the researchers would travel to a place to study customs and practices of a particular society. In such a case, this approach involves participating in a situation, while at the same time, recording what is being observed in various ways. Based on this criterion,  participant observation is often associated with qualitative methods, as the data collected from this technique tends to be predominantly qualitative. This technique is interesting and rewarding yet at the same time, poses various challenges to the researcher (Iacono & Holtham, 2009: 39). Observation itself as defined by Marshall and Rossman (1989: 79) refers to, “the systematic description of events, behaviors, and artifacts in the social setting chosen for study”. Observations provide the researcher a “written photograph” of the situation under examination (Erlandson, Harris, Skipper & Allen, 1993). Participant-observation is defined as a strategy by Corbetta (2003: 236) in which the researcher enters directly, for a relatively long period of time into a given social group, in its    natural setting, establishing a relationship of personal interaction with its members, and in order to describe their actions and understand their motivations, through a  process of identification. Silverman (2001: 45) adds to this understanding, indicating that participant observation method implies the concept of participating rather than observing people at a distance. This could possible enable the researcher to obtain “firsthand” information. 3. Advantages of Participant Observation Some scholars have highlighted the benefits of using participant observation approach as one of the data collection method. Observation methods are useful to researchers in a variety of ways. They provide researchers with ways to check for nonverbal expression of feelings, determine who interacts with whom, grasp how  participants communicate with each other, and check for how much time is spent on various activities (Schmuck, 1997). Demunck and Sobo (1998: 43) provide several advantages of using participant observation over other methods of data collection. The interesting thing about participant observation approach is that it allows access to the “backstage culture” and this proves to be helpful. Also, it allows for richly detailed description, which they interpret to mean that one’s goal of describing, “behaviors, intentions, situations, and events as understood by one’s informants” is highlighted. Bernard (2006) identifies five benefits for conducting participant observation research. First, the participant observation approach opens up the areas of inquiry and that enables a wider range of data to be collected. This implies that participant observation approach provides an added privilege to the researcher in getting internal information. It is particularly true that in some movements for example, without being absorb in as a participant, it is not easy to get information that sometimes the    outsiders are simply not allowed to do so. Second is to reduce the problem of reactivity. A successful participant observer fits into the scene well enough to be ignored, even if he is doing abnormal things such as interviewing, taking pictures, recording video or audio, or taking notes. Third, the participant observation approach assist and prompt the researcher to ask the right question. That simply means by being embedded in the social context, it helps the researcher to learn what questions are relevant. It is especially valuable if the researcher is unfamiliar with the culture in the group. DeWalt and DeWalt (2002) also support this argument as participation observation approach  provides the context for development of sampling guidelines and interview guides.   Fourth is to gain intuitive understanding of the meaning of data collected. The interpretation of qualitative data is always a somewhat subjective activity, and those who question the validity of qualitative methods often point to examples of studies in which the researchers grossly misunderstood something that was obvious to knowledgeable insiders or members of the studied culture or social group. Participant observation gives you an intimate knowledge of your area of study that greatly reduces this type of validity error. Fifth, the participant observation approach could address problems and issues that are difficult to obtain with other data collection techniques. For the Bersih movement for example, it is crucial to experience the protests as that provides experience that could not be accumulate through books and so forth. 4. Disadvantages of Participant Observation This data collection method however has its disadvantages and limitations. Denscombe (2007: 224-225) includes the limited options for access, demanding in terms of personal commitment and resources, potential physical danger to the researcher, weak reliability of findings, low representativeness of the data, and     potential deception by the researcher as among the disadvantages. DeWalt and DeWalt (2002) note that gender plays a role in accessing to different information. This is because male and female have access to different people, settings and bodies of knowledge. It is important to note that participant observation is conducted by a  biased human who serves as the instrument for data collection, therefore the researcher must understand how his or her gender, sexuality, ethnicity, class, and theoretical approach may affect observation, analysis, and interpretation. One common problem among the qualitative researchers is the issue of  prejudices and attitudes of the researcher to bias the data (Bogdan & Biklen, 1982). Similarly, the participant observation approach too raises a lot of issues in term of ethical. The researcher is required to determine to what extent he or she will  participate in the lives of the participants and whether to intervene in a situation (DeWalt, DeWalt & Wayland, 1998). The main argument is that the investigation should not be conducted in a covert manner, rather the researcher should inform earlier on his or her capacity being in the scene. However in that case, it raises the concern where the presence of the researcher may influence how the subject of the study behaves. Then there is also the issue of suspicious and that is where the element of biasness emerges (Iacano & Holtham, 2009: 42). Researcher bias is one of the aspects of qualitative research that has led to the view that qualitative research is subjective, rather than objective because the researcher is both the instrument of data collection and data interpretation. At the same time, a qualitative strategy normally involves close and personal contact to the people and the situation under study (Patton, 1990). According to Ratner (2002), some qualitative researchers believe that one cannot be both objective and subjective, while others believe that the two can coexist, that one’s subjectivity can facilitate understanding the world of others. He
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