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Assess the strengths and limitations of covert participant observation as a means of investigating ‘edgework’ as a motivation for crime - Leanna Dawson

Leanna Dawson is 18 years old and a student in the Sixth Form at Balby Carr Community Sports and Science College, Doncaster. Leanna is studying Sociology, Psychology and Level 3 Forensic Science. Leanna is hoping to do Midwifery at University in September this year.

Covert participation is the method where the researcher will participate in activities that the observees are involved in, the research will also be undercover without the sample having knowledge of  the research. An advantage of participant observation is gaining rapport with the participants, but this strength can also be converted into a weakness as over-rapport could develop, affecting the validity of the qualitative data. A further weakness would be that participating in edgework is dangerous and potentially criminal. Katz describes edgework as providing a buzz. If the sociologist gains this buzz whilst participating in edgework then they may carry on participating in the criminal activities after they have left the group.


Covert observation is where the participants are unaware they are being observed. A strength of this is that no Hawthorne Effect will arise amongst the edgeworkers, therefore producing rich, qualitative data. However, due to the participants being unaware, this not only involves deception, it also breeches the ethical issue of informed consent, which is a weakness of this method, although this can be overcome through retrospective informed consent, therefore reducing the potential problem - on the other hand, it could be a risk to the researcher’s safety for him to actually tell the participants that he has been observing them.


Observation technique is the most useful technique to observe edgework as a motivation for crime as qualitative data will be produced, which is favoured by Interpretivist sociologists, as the research will be high in validity/truthfulness. A longitudinal study would be appropriate to gain verstehen, so triangulation of both covert participant observation within a longitudinal study could further improve the validity of the research, as a better understanding would be produced. Perhaps, after participants have been de-briefed about the research findings, informal interviews with them could extend the methodology and allow further depth to be obtained.


Practical issues with this type of observation would be finding an appropriate group to observe, then getting in, staying in and getting out. Edgework appeals particularly to young men from marginalised social groups, so, for example, a middle aged, middle class female would find it particularly hard to involve themselves with young males involved in edgework. She is a different gender and her age would also pose problems as she may be seen as an authority figure. A way around this might be for her to recruit young people to carry out her observations for her - but this would create its own practical (getting volunteers) and ethical (their safety) problems. A semi-overt observation would overcome the problem of getting in to a group, but even just one person knowing what is going on can jeopardise the validity and representativeness  of the findings, with some activities being “off limits” to the researcher.


Staying in would be another issue as the observer needs to participate in the edgework activities, possibly over an extended period of time, but also try to remain objective at the same time. They may also pick up what is known as “guilty knowledge” which is where the researcher withholds some of their findings in order to maintain the trust of the group. Getting out is not as much of a problem with this type of research, but problems have the potential to arise such as the researcher not wanting to leave.


To conclude, covert participant observation, according to interpretivists, is the most efficient choice of method as it is the best at providing rich, valid data. A further improvement would be triangulation, with the use of unstructured interviews within a a longitudinal study to further develop the validity of the data.









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