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
3.4 Access

3.4.1 Introduction
3.4.2 Negotiating with gatekeepers
3.4.3 Insider status
3.4.4 Continuing negotiation of access
3.4.5 The interrelationship of access negotiation and data collection

3.5 Recording data
3.6 Analysing observational or ethnographic data
3.7 Summary

Activity 3.4.1

3.4 Access

3.4.2 Negotiating with gatekeepers
Sometimes the researcher wants to set up the research from the outset as an observation study of certain situations and this requires negotiation with certain key individuals, or gatekeepers. Colin Lacey (1970), for example, in his study of a secondary school, had to obtain permission from the chief education officer and the headmaster. Similarly, Michael Little (1990) in his study Young Men in Prison needed Home Office permission. Sallie Westwood (1984, p. 2) used a local contact to set up a meeting with the management of 'Stitch Co.' and

for some reason, the idea of an anthropologist studying the culture of the shopfloor by hanging around the coffee bar, lurking in the lunch canteen and sharing a few "risqué" jokes, appealed to management who saw my immersion as a baptism of fire.

Access for Sanders' (2004, p. 275) ethnographic study of female prostitution in Birmingham, UK, was 'gained through a sexual health organization (the 'Safe Project') that was well established within the sex work community'.

Jonathan Potter (2010), a discursive psychologist (see Section 6.5), used video and audio recording, often in seemingly hard-to-access contexts and negotiating access was vital part of the research process. He claimed that with care the most surprising settings could be recorded (see CASE STUDY Obtaining access and consent).

In some cases, the gatekeeper is a member of the group or community being studied. In Patrick's (1973) study of the Glasgow gang, Tim, the gang leader, was the gatekeeper who gave him access (see CASE STUDY: Joining the Gang). Similarly, Whyte's (1955) study of street corner life was only possible after he met Doc who vouched for him with the rest of the gang. Bennett (1999, p. 608) got to know dance-music enthusiasts who acted 'as gatekeepers, introducing me to other members of the local dance-music scene'.

Polsky (1971), as we have seen, argued that research on deviant groups should be open. The use of gatekeepers is thus central to gaining access (see CASE STUDY: Getting an introduction). Polsky argued that you need to make an initial contact and snowball the sample.

Activity 3.4.1
To what extent is Polsky's account (CASE STUDY: Getting an introduction), which is based on experiences in the USA in the 1960s, realistic and feasible here and now? Ask your friends and relatives to see if they know any career criminals. Do not attempt to follow up any of these. Comment, also, on the gender assumptions that Polsky makes.

Reflective analysis, best done as a group discussion following some 'homework' with relatives and friends.

Sometimes, however, access is denied. Barbara Rogers (1988, p. viii) wanted to study men-only clubs and organisations such as freemasons, rotary clubs, private boys schools, élite men's clubs, the upper tiers of the armed forces and the Church of England as well male-dominated pubs and sports clubs. As a woman this was not easy.

It is a daunting task to investigate where no woman is allowed to go: many of these organisations are very poorly documented for such important institutions in our society, and several of them rejected straightforward approaches from me. It therefore became essential to use men informants and investigators open up the different worlds of men-only to female scrutiny.

Rogers thus combined her own observations, where she could gain access, with those of male investigators who worked for her and the comments of informants who were members of the organisations she was investigating.

Researchers are often seen as 'taking' from the community or group they observe and not giving much back. It is useful to be able to offer something in return, although make no promises you cannot keep! Muriel Saville-Troike (2003, p. 91) referred to situations where the research provided direct benefit to the community:

Positive examples can be found in the work of a number of anthropological linguists working with Indian groups in the United States. These include Ossie Werner (Northwestern University), whose research on Navajo anatomical terminology and their beliefs about the causes and cures of disease provided input to improvements in the delivery of health care, and William Leap (American University), whose research on Isletan Tiwa yielded a written form of the language and bilingual reading materials. These materials were developed in response to community fears that the language was in a state of decline, and to their desire to maintain it.


Next 3.4.3 Insider status