I’m just here for the research

My latest Beyond Boundaries column for The Psychologist asks why psychologists don’t immerse themselves in the lives of people they study and whether sociologists think we’re wimps. Plus a bonus question about why strip clubs are so frequently researched.

Sociologists must think we’re wusses. While we’re handing out questionnaires, scanning people in labs or measuring behavioural responses, our society-focused 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 Caribbean beach after investigating criminality in Jamaica.

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?

Not mentioned in the column, to avoid offending the gentle readers of The Psychologist, is the fact that one of the most popular subjects for ‘participant observer’ studies has been strip clubs.

Just think about that for a minute.

Whatever strip club related thoughts are now gyrating through your mind, be assured that someone has done a study on it, by, er… participating and observing.

Visiting strip clubs, visiting strip clubs for women, visiting gay strip clubs, working as a stripper, and probably the finest example of its genre – a study on going to strip clubs while on holiday.

Drs, I would take my hat off to you, but it’s covering my data.

Thanks to Jon Sutton, editor of The Psychologist who has kindly agreed for me to publish my column on Mind Hacks as long as I include the following text:

The Psychologist is sent free to all members of the British Psychological Society (you can join here), or you can subscribe as a non-member by going here.

Link to column from The Psychologist (bottom of page).

5 thoughts on “I’m just here for the research”

  1. It had never occurred to me that social psychologists might surreptitiously work as bouncers and strippers in order to do research. Fascinating stuff! Posts like this is why I have been a devout reader of Mindhacks for the last 5 years or so.

  2. How would THAT grant proposal look? 🙂

    I had to pretend I was vaguely religious once because while studying chimney swifts in the Deep South I was invited to a church dinner. They had some great anecdotes about the birds in their chimneys but also one disturbed individual told me about how he shoots the birds (a felony) and some northeasterner chimney builders told me that they remove their nests (also a felony).

    So I always wondered does confidentiality rule, or are we obligated to do what we think will protect others?

  3. Great post, thanks. It reminded me of the sociologist Laud Humphreys whose work undercover in the gay community was so controversial. I can’t help thinking that while the participant observation style of research is fraught with problems, the pseudo objectivity of lab based psychological research seems contrived and un-lifelike in comparison.
    I think a study of researchers who frequent strip clubs is called for!

  4. I find it strange that you don’t mention anthropologists, since even more than sociologists, they often engage in participant observation. It’s pretty common for anthropologists to immerse themselves in the culture in which they live, and there’s lots of literature about this experience in fieldwork.

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