Social science subjects are a mainstay of many fields of research, used to obtain an insight into a particular group of people in their natural environment.
Anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists use the technique, called participant observation, to study and analyze the factors that make the group unique.
It is extremely useful for studying the internal relationships in any group or society, the subtle interactions that purely empirical research cannot always pick up.
Participant observation can take many forms. Anthropologists, for example, use direct observation, or participate within the group, to gain a unique insider's insight.
Sociologists and psychologists use interviews, surveys, tests, physical measures, studies of life histories and self-report.
There are many advantages to using participation research, and there is little doubt that human research subjects generate excellent data.
Basically, what you see is what you get with a participant study.
Nobody questions the value of participant observation, but there are a few pitfalls with the research. Any prospective researcher must be fully aware of the limitations, and be extremely careful to address them within the body of the research.
In participant observation, these disadvantages are unavoidable, and have to be regarded as an integral part of the research. Whilst the experimental design can minimize the effects, it is important that the researcher is aware of the possible implications.
In most research, the scientist generates a hypothesis, the focal point of the whole experiment. With participant research, the researcher should, instead, show that they are aware of the limitations before they start the observations, reducing the chances of bias.
This will allow anybody reading and analyzing the research paper to make a qualified judgment about the quality of the paper and the usefulness of the research.
In any of these fields, ethical considerations and the wellbeing of the participants are the single most important consideration. The researcher must ensure that he causes no harm to the group, and it is generally accepted that honesty is the first parameter; the researcher must be open about purpose and intent.
The ethical considerations concerning permissions, consent and possible suffering are very similar to guidelines governing psychology researchers.
These are the main points:
One example would be studying sexuality - whilst the observer need not be gay or lesbian to understand those groups, it does help, giving them a unique insight into the unique difficulties faced by gay communities.
These ethics are extremely important for maintaining the integrity of participation. It is very easy for researchers using social science subjects to cross the line and cause lasting damage to a group or community.
Historically, the use of ethics have been sloppy in some social science experiments, such as the use of deception in the milgram study, the stanford prison experiment, the bobo doll experiment or the asch experiment. These studies would probably have been disallowed today.
This is especially important with the number of documentaries following groups or tribes, because it is very easy to stray into attempting to edit unfavorably and sensationalizing footage for ratings. This is the boundary between genuine documentaries and cheap reality TV.
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