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 2012–2017

Page updated 13 January, 2017

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2017, 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

3.4 Access

3.4.4 Continuing negotiation of access
It is important to remember that access is not a one-off event. The researcher is constantly negotiating and renegotiating access (Gellner and Hirsch (Eds.), 2001)

Parry (1990, p. 420) in her year-long participant observation study of a journalism school noted that:

Although access was granted to me by the Director of the School it later transpired that his attitude did not reflect the wishes of all of his teaching staff… I found one lecturer at the journalism school particularly difficult in this respect; his main worry was that he felt the research interests were at odds with the objectives of the course. I was, he argued, ‘used to going to university-type lectures and things are quite different here’… The incompatibility of the work versus educational aspects of the environment, both of which were an important part of the setting, led to recurring problems throughout the duration of the research.

New people come into the research situation all the time and the researcher’s role and activities have to be constantly reiterated. Indeed, as the research progresses the researcher will also probably want to redefine the research role to obtain a wider range of material. This, as we have said, is more difficult for secret than open researchers.

Michael Filby’s (1989, pp. 21–2) access to the betting shops was gained through previous research contacts with a major bookmaking company and the project was negotiated as a case study of the nature of work in a service industry.

The broad intentions of the study were shared with all the participants in varying levels of detail. ‘Access’ was a continuing process of negotiation. I had to re-explain my presence and interests as subjects entered the scene. While the last person is as important as the first, it is difficult to be equally conscientious. The staff helped out somewhat in explaining their understanding to others but this is apt to create unintended impressions. Nevertheless, Bridget, a member of the first shop, invented a line which I then gratefully used ... that ‘Mike is doing a study on what it’s really like working in a betting shop’.

Observational settings are ongoing social settings and, particularly for participant observations, setting that have to be engaged with anew on a daily basis. The researcher is not immune from the normal everyday activity that takes place in the setting simply by dint of being a researcher. On the contrary, as Filby’s (1989) material demonstrates (CASE STUDY Example field notes), the researcher can often add a distraction to the mundane and be a diversion from, for example, everyday work practices (see Section

Sanders (2004) reveals an incident where she became the butt of a benign joke in her study of sex workers (CASE STUDY Taking a joke). Being able to take a joke, even when it does not seem funny at the time, is an important lesson for researchers in the field.

We have noted in Section 3.3.2, how some secret participant observation could end up with the researcher in danger, notably the threats of physical violence against Patrick (1973) from a gang member. For others, taking on a role of a dosser (Page, 1971) or a low-paid worker (Ehrenreich, 2002; Abrams, 2002), meant arduous living or working conditions that had to be adapted to quickly and coped with on a daily basis.


Next 3.4.5 The interrelationship of access negotiation and data collection