Orientation Observation In-depth interviews Document analysis and semiology Conversation and discourse analysis Secondary Data Surveys Experiments Ethics Research outcomes



Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2019

Page updated 25 January, 2019

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2019, Researching the Real World, available at
All rights belong to author.


A Guide to Methodology

3. Observation

3.1 Introduction
3.2 Aspects
3.3 Methodological approaches

3.3.1 Positivism and observation
3.3.2 Phenomenology and observation Observation for theory generation: emergent theory Observation for theory development: a naturalistic perspective Observation as a basis for identifying subjects' meanings Observation as a basis for empathetic interpretation Observation as the basis for deconstructing everyday life Observation as a process of establishing identity Observation as a means of discovering how communities operate

3.3.3 Critical social research and observation

3.4 Access
3.5 Recording data
3.6 Analysing observational or ethnographic data
3.7 Summary


3.3 Methodological approaches

3.3.2 Phenomenology and observation Observation as a process of establishing identity
Observational research is also used to explore the way that people establish their identities and sense of self. This often involves identity development for particular aspects of their lives, such as when they are actively engaged in a leisure pursuit, such as a club-goer or football supporter, or when in work or participating in an organisation. This phenomenological approach is usually constructed as postmodernist analysis, either explicitly or implicitly.

For example, in his analysis of the urban dance music scene, Bennett (1999) argued against structuralist accounts of youth subculture and proposes a lifestyle concept that emphasises choice and consumerism rather than being rooted in social class. Instead of the concept of 'subculture', he argued that the 1990s music scene was more fluid than is implied by the concept of subculture and that 'neo-tribalism' is a more appropriate analytic concept. Essentially, in this postmodernist inspired ethnography, Bennett claims that the:

concept of 'lifestyle' provides a useful basis for a revised understanding of how individual identities are constructed and lived out. 'Lifestyle' describes the sensibilities employed by the individual in choosing certain commodities and patterns of consumption and in articulating these cultural resources as modes of personal expression (Chaney 1994, 1996). In this way, a lifestyle is 'a freely chosen game' and should not be confused with a 'way of life', the latter being 'typically associated with a more-or-less stable community' (Kellner 1992:158; Chaney 1994:92).... Moreover, in positing experimentation as a central characteristic of late modern identities, the concept of lifestyle allows for the fact that individuals will also often select lifestyles which are in no way indicative of a specific class background. All of this is not to suggest that 'lifestyle' abandons any consideration of structural issues. Rather, 'lifestyle' allows for the fact that consumerism offers the individual new ways of negotiating such issues. (Bennett, 1999, pp. 607–8)

Bennett's ethnographic study of the Newcastle dance scene, he claims, reveals that how clubbers engage with urban dance-music events 'is becoming increasingly a matter of individual choice, the type of music heard and the setting in which it is heard and danced to being very much the decision of the individual consumer' because the events themselves are not homogenous but rather fragmented. His ethnographic data shows how '"clubbing" appears to be regarded less as a singularly definable activity and more as a series of fragmented, temporal experiences as they move between different dance floors and engage with different crowds'.

For Bennett (1999, p. 613), the urban dance scene does not, in itself, spell the end of music subcultures, rather an analysis of it provides a new understanding of 'how young people perceive the relationship between musical taste and visual style which negates the notion of a fixed homological relationship between musical taste and stylistic preference'. Neo-tribalism, he argued, is more appropriate as a way of characterizing 'young people's appropriation of popular music and style since the immediate post-war period, such sensibilities being an inevitable aspect of late modern consumer society' (Bennett, 1999, p. 614).


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