Is participant observation as a research technique acceptable when something like crime and deviance is being researched? Participant observation may actually require the researcher to witness a criminal activity taking place. What does he/she then do? If they want to continue with their research and if that research is based on participant observation, they will have to come to a tough decision.


One researcher who used participant observation as the basis for his research into street gangs was William Foote Whyte. In the late 1930s, Whyte lived in a slum district of Boston that was mostly inhabited by first and second generation immigrants from Italy. The neighbourhood was considered dangerous and crime was prevalent. Some Italians were suspected to be potential allies of Italian fascism under Mussolini. Whyte lived in that district for three and a half years, including 18 months he spent with an Italian family. Through this work, Whyte became a pioneer in participant observation. ‘Street Corner Society’ describes how local gangs were formed and organized. Whyte differentiated between “corner boys” and “college boys”: The lives of the former men revolved around particular street corners and the nearby shops. The college boys, on the other hand, were more interested in good education and moving up the social ladder.


Initially those he was observing believed that Whyte asked too many questions and their initial relationship was tense. However, once Whyte sat back and simply observed he found that his situation changed for the better:


“As I sat and listened I learnt the answers to the questions that I would not have had the sense to ask.”


Howard Becker undertook a study of jazz musicians as a professional group. This research led Becker to write extensively about drug use, and he put off publishing it for over a decade until 1963, when the political climate in the United States had improved as he did not want to stereotype all jazz musicians as drug takers in what in the 1950’s was a conservative America.


Becker wrote that: “deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an “offender.” The deviant is one to whom the label has successfully been applied; deviant behaviour is behaviour that people so label.


Laud Humphreys is best known for ‘Tearoom Trade’ (1970). This was a participant observation study of anonymous male-male sexual encounters in public toilets (a practice known as “tea-rooming” in U.S. gay slang and cottaging in British English). Humphreys asserted that the men participating in such activity came from diverse social backgrounds, had differing personal motives for seeking gay contact in such venues, and were variously self-perceived as “straight,” “bisexual,” or “gay.”


Because Humphreys was able to confirm that over 50% of his subjects were outwardly heterosexual men with unsuspecting wives at home, a primary thesis of ‘Tearoom Trade’ is the incongruence between the private self and the social self for many of the men engaging in this form of homosexual activity. Specifically, they put on a “breastplate of righteousness” in an effort to conceal their deviant behaviour and prevent being exposed as deviants. Humphreys tapped into a theme of incongruence between one’s words and deeds that has become a primary methodological and theoretical concern in sociology throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.


Humphreys’ study has been criticized by sociologists on ethical grounds in that he observed acts of homosexuality by masquerading as a  voyeur, “did not get his subjects’ consent, tracked down names and addresses through license plate numbers and interviewed the men in their homes in disguise and under false pretences.”


‘James Patrick’ is a pseudonym for a researcher who in the late 1950s observed a Glaswegian gang in the Maryhill district for four months. He found a gang member called Tim in an approved school, and Tim got him into the gang. Given his privileged position and knowledge, Tim also protected the researcher. Tim in Glasgow was especially important because one gang member became suspicious and stated this to others when ‘James Patrick’ did not want to carry a weapon when the gang engaged in fights with rivals. He also held back from the actual fights. Tim would then come in on his side. Nevertheless the researcher did not write his field notes until after the research.


‘James Patrick’ left Glasgow quickly when the violence became too unacceptable for him and he felt threatened. By memory after the events he reproduced rich data on the speech and ways of the gang, although the research itself was presented in a neutral and academic style. He was afraid of the gang and waited years before publishing; this was also to protect their identities. It was published in 1973 as “A Glasgow Gang Observed”.


‘Patrick’s’ findings relate to social conditions that led to such a gang forming and becoming so intense in their behaviour, and that a core activity of the group was to put themselves into conflict situations where they may well have to fight but where actual fighting often did not happen. The Glasgow gang was found to be equivalent in behaviour and custom to the experience of gangs in the United States.


Paul Willis studied twelve working class boys in a Midlands secondary school. He argued that ‘these lads’ (as they identified themselves) formed a distinctive “counter-school sub-cultural grouping” characterised by opposition to the values and norms perpetuated throughout the school. This group of disaffected boys felt superior to the more conformist pupils who they disparagingly labelled as ‘ear oles’. They showed little interest in academic work, preferring instead to amuse themselves as best they could through various forms of deviant behaviour in which ‘having a laff’ became the main objective of the school day. The lads also tried to identify with the adult, non-school world, by smoking, drinking and expressing strongly sexist and racist attitudes. Academic work had no value for these boys who had little interest in gaining qualifications and saw manual work as superior to mental work.


Participant observation research has its supporters as well as its detractors. Invariably such a form of research tends to look into the more shadowy aspects of society. Therefore a researcher openly taking notes about what he/she sees is likely to arouse suspicion or a gang of those observed may act up to it, hence putting a slant on the final observed results. Therefore a lot of what is observed is written up later in a preferred environment and the issue here for sociologists is the accuracy of that write-up if several hours have elapsed. Also there is a major problem in that nothing that has been written about can be verified – except by asking those involved at grass-root level. This, in itself, may be difficult at best especially if the observed behaviour borders on the illegal. The other major issues here revolve around ethics. If a researcher observes an illegal act being carried out, does he/she report it and ruin their own research? Do they ‘turn a blind eye’ to allow their research to continue especially if such an approach gains extra kudos from a gang and builds on their relationship, which in itself may further the research being carried out? There is also the possibility that the researcher him/herself may be putting themselves in a position of danger by involving themselves in such a form of research.   




Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex