The field for sociological research , the object of study cannot be isolated and observed in a laboratory. It is social relationships that matter.
Field work with high school students is common. In most cases, these are local surveys (in the neighborhood or around the school). It is an initiative that aims to make the student reflect on his place, on the social relationships of which he is a part.
In his work “The history of life in sociological investigation: the selection of subjects and their implications”, published in ‘Essays on General and Applied Sociology’, Florestan Fernandes is concerned with revealing the richness of the method of life history as a sociological document .
The sociologist examines the relationship between the researcher and the people who collaborate with the research. It also analyzes the difficulties encountered by the researcher when his object of study is also a subject.
Florestan Fernandes discusses the combination of the participant observation technique and the life history method and discusses how the researcher will seek to obtain a position in the group he will observe. And he warns: the external conditions of the investigation do not guarantee the researcher’s ability to communicate and understand.
The researcher who is part of the group
Some researchers become workers, for example, because that way they imagine getting “concrete knowledge” of the working conditions and mentality of the workers themselves.
But becoming part of the observed group is no guarantee of achieving more coexistence and establishing bonds of sympathy with the members of the researched community. And these are necessary elements for the smooth running of the study.
Be part of the routine
Anyone who chooses to be part of the investigated group should not choose positions that “restrict their area of personal action or affect emotionally or morally viable social adjustments”, says Fernandes. The relationship between researcher and researched is, above all, a relationship between subjects. Therefore, it must occur like any other social interaction.
The sociologist can strategically explore participant observation, operating in environments where his presence is part of the routine. Participation would result from the researcher’s condition as a member of the group. When observing a group of which he is a part, the researcher feels less embarrassed and reduces the inconvenience for others.
Furthermore: the existence of a long coexistence or the mutual esteem between the researcher and the research subjects can contribute as stimulating elements for the two agents involved in the investigation situation.
There is no guarantee of communication
The insertion of the researcher in the group, deliberately or spontaneously, does not guarantee communication between the researcher and the research subjects, nor the understanding of social relations in a given group.
For Florestan Fernandes, what contributes to a fruitful work “is the human quality of the researcher, used in his research activities”, “what the researcher can give of himself, as and as a human being, in situations of social coexistence created by investigation”.
What makes research rigorous
It is also up to the researcher, according to the object and given the conditions of investigation, to examine the feasibility of combining research techniques, to select the cases for the elaboration of life stories, to find the most significant in the biographies and to take analysis results.
The rigor of sociological research does not lie in the removal of the researcher from the groups to which he belongs, – as many attest -, nor in the insertion in the group to be observed, but in how the researcher will develop his activities.
Interests involved in sociological research
Whichever position the researcher chooses to occupy in front of the group he observes, it will be a position in which personal history and professional training are revealed and confronted.
It will be a relationship mediated by the different interests involved, by the impressions that the interlocutors have of each other, by the dilemmas experienced by each one, in short by a common story and by particular stories. Both the researcher and the collaborators are subjects of the investigation, because they are available to learn from each other.