Sociologists must think we’re wusses

Beyond Boundaries column, The Psychologist, around October 2012

Sociologists must think we’re wusses. While we’re handing out questionnaires, scanning people in labs or measuring behavioural responses, our society-focussed friends wade into the thick of it. One particular technique, called participant observation, involves taking part in the activities of those you want to study or accompanying them in their daily lives. For reasons never quite clear to me, this has never been a popular approach in psychology, although from reading a few of the studies, perhaps you can begin to see why.

Simon Winlow was finding it difficult to study violence in the night-time economy and so decided to get himself a job as a bouncer. His work provides an exceptional insight into how doormen use and understand professional violence in clubs and pubs. This was not least because, at the risk of losing his job, Winlow was expected to muscle in when patrons became aggressive. In other words, beat people up. It’s not often that you read about a researcher beating up their research subjects but how could you do such a study without it? “The rights and wrongs of these issues” his research team noted “were never fully resolved”. Run-ins with the authorities are not unknown. Sociologist Mick Bloor, who himself ended-up in a bar fight while studying male prostitution in Glasgow, wrote a pertinent article on research dangers. He recounts how one PhD student had been imprisoned without trial in Africa during fieldwork.

Several other researchers immersed themselves in the world of provos and paramilitaries during the height of The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Lorraine Dowler recounted how she was forced to flee when her interviewee became the target of a street-level assassination attempt while social scientist Frank Burton woke one morning to find a submachine gun pointed in has face and the owner insinuating he was a military informer. Sadly, not all have come away from their experiences unscathed. The body of Ken Pryce was found washed up on a Carribean beach after investigating criminality in Jamaica. He was working on a follow-up to his celebrated study Endless Pressure: Study of West Indian Lifestyles in Bristol.

There are some isolated examples in psychology, most notably David Rosenhan’s study On Being Sane in Insane Places, where he asked researchers to fake symptoms of mental illness to be admitted to psychiatric hospital, but we are surprisingly reticent to take an immersive approach to the people we study. Maybe we are specialists in looking in from the outside?