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 2012–2020

Page updated 29 April, 2020

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2020, 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

3.4.1 Introduction
Doing participant observation research clearly requires becoming part of a social situation. This can be quite a difficult and fraught part of the whole operation. The degree of difficulty depends on the type of role adopted, particularly whether it is secret or open, and the kind of group or organisation being researched. If access is to be successful and the observation role, covert or overt, is to be maintained then the researcher must have a good 'cover story' (See Section 3.2.3). If this is not the complete truth, then the researcher must devise something that will make him or her acceptable to the group, but also one that can be sustained should close questioning about it occur. There is no simple formula for gaining access to a group for purposes of participant observation. Sometimes access involves a long period of investigation, consultation and persuasion to find a suitable research setting, to make contacts and to become accepted.

Some researchers are able to take advantage of existing organisational contacts, social situations or skills to negotiate access. Howard Becker (1963) used his musical skills and Ned Polsky (1971) his billiard playing skills in order to make contacts and become part of the social group they wanted to study. Dick Hobbs (1988) explained how he developed a key informant for his study:

I became interested in the relationship between the detectives who frequented The Pump and the rest of the pub's clientele, an interest that coincided with an approach to coach a soccer team. When I realised that one of the parents who followed the team was Simon, a detective who used The Pump, I willingly gave up one evening a week and my Sunday mornings to stand freezing in a damp field cajoling various Waynes, Damiens, Troys, and Justins to "close each other down" and such like. My relationship with Simon steered the course of the research during those early months. Our relationship was most enjoyable and was initially a trading relationship; I had coaching skills that might complement his son's outstanding athletic ability, and he had knowledge of, and contacts in, the CID. Simon emerged as my principal police informant, granting me both formal and informal interviews, access to documents, and introductions to individuals and settings that would otherwise be inaccessible.

Sometimes, however, the research setting almost falls into the researcher's lap. Morag MacDonald's key contact for her research on Italian prisons was someone she shared an umbrella with at a conference. Elizabeth Long's (2003) study of book clubs in the United States grew out of an initial chance occurrence:

I was unaware of book clubs until I was asked to talk to one in Houston about some "feminist" novels. Not too much later, I was asked to join one by a colleague's wife. I did, and enjoyed it.... Meanwhile, ...I wanted to look at how people beyond the academy interpreted and used literature, and so looking at book clubs sounded like a way to get information on that. So I recorded my own book club, and began to try to find other book clubs to study. I participated in some for quite a while, but always as a known researcher. (Long, 2005)

Eileeen Barker (1984) was invited to do research into the 'Moonies' and James Patrick (1973) starts A Glasgow Gang Observed with an account of how he joined the gang (see CASE STUDY: Joining the Gang).

On the other hand, Robin Page (1971), a civil servant concerned about the welfare system, made a conscious decision to become a dosser in order to find out why so many people live in abject poverty. He began his homeless career without any idea of what the problems might be in becoming a dosser (CASE STUDY: Becoming a down-and-out).

Patrick became a participant observer as a result of an invitation while Page decided to become a dosser and then luckily came across a group he was able to join. As both were covert observers they clearly had to develop things 'by ear' once the first contacts were made. Sudhir Venkatesh (2009) made his break through into Chicago gang life when he developed an unexpected friendship with T.J., a gang leader who hoped that Venkatesh might write his biography. T.J gave Venkatesh access and protection and even offered him a personal driver.

The sometimes fortuitous and unforeseen events associated with access may not always be a good thing. It may lead to the research being determined by the way that initial contact is made and developed rather than by any concerns to undertake systematic research. Martin Hammersley and Paul Atkinson (1983), for example, raise the question of whether or not Elliot Liebow (1967), in his study Tally's Corner, should have surrendered himself so thoroughly to the chance meeting with Tally and its subsequent consequences that his initial plans to carry out a number of small comparative studies was abandoned. Liebow reports that the lines of his fieldwork were 'laid out without my being aware of it' (Liebow, 1967, p. 237).


Next 3.4.2 Negotiating with gatekeepers