Self-identification as homeless

The following is a sample Paper 3 that looks at an observational study. Below you will first find the stimulus piece, followed by the static questions.  A copy of the mock paper is included to give students as an in-class assessment.

Potential answers are included in the hidden boxes below.

Student copy

Stimulus piece

From Social Identity Theory and previous research on homeless people, it was hypothesized that the identity strategies used by the homeless would differ as a function of longevity of homelessness: the short- term homeless would be less likely to identify themselves as homeless, while the longer-term homeless would identify themselves as homeless.

A covert participant observation was used for the study. The data were collected by the researcher in her role as a regular volunteer helper at a night-shelter. Only questions that would occur naturally were asked, and care was taken not to cause distress. In addition, participants remained anonymous. Hence, there were no `foreseeable threats to their psychological well-being, health, values or dignity.’

The researcher had acted as a volunteer at the shelter for two years. She knew many of the homeless at the shelter prior to the study. For the fieldwork, a total of 26 hours was spent conversing with homeless individuals over a three-month period. Observations and conversations were recorded in a journal at home immediately after each session. The researcher spoke to each participant on at least two occasions during the fieldwork period, but many of them had known the researcher before the study period. If it appeared that the participant wanted to speak with the researcher, then she would sit down with them and allow the participant to direct the conversation; conversation could last from 15 minutes to over an hour. In rarer instances, the researcher would speak with more than one participant at a time or overhear conversations between the homeless or between the homeless and other volunteers. In addition, the researcher made note of how the participants interacted with the other people at the shelter.

At the end of the fieldwork period, the contents of the journal were organized into self-report portraits about each person. Their comments were then analyzed individually to ascertain whether they identified with a group label or group members. The amount of time that each participant had been homeless was based on self-report.

Findings supported that those who had not been homeless for long saw themselves as “temporarily having difficulties,” but did not identify themselves as homeless, and did not develop relationships with those who had been homeless for a longer time.

Source: Farrington, A & Peter Robinson. Homelessness and Strategies of Identity Maintenance; Journal of Community Appl. Soc. Psychol. 9: 175±194 (1999).


1a. Identify the method used and outline two characteristics of the method.

A covert participant observation.  The researcher did not get consent for the observation; she did so "covertly' to avoid demand characteristics. Another characteristic is that the researcher is interacting with the participants - that is what is meant by a "participant" observation. The method also has high ecological validity since the participants are studied in their actual environment. The participant observation also allows the researcher to develop empathy for the participants, which may or not be an advantage in this case. Finally, the method allows for clarification at the time that comments are made. This would not be the case if she were looking at hours of film coverage of homeless conversations. She is able to steer the conversation to a certain extent, but she has to be careful to not unduly influence the nature of the conversation.

1b. Describe the sampling method used in the study.

The sample was an opportunity sample - that is, it already exists.  The shelter where the researcher worked was already known to her and the clients were regulars with whom she already had a relationship.

1c. Suggest an alternative or additional research method giving one reason for your choice.

An alternative method would be to run focus groups based on the amount of time someone has been homeless. This would get rid of the ethical concern that there is no consent obtained in this study - and it would allow the researcher to get more direct answers to her questions.  She would then be able to triangulate the data to see if it concurs with the data from the observational study.

2. Describe the ethical considerations that were applied in the study and explain if further ethical considerations could be applied.

The researcher notes that the anonymity of the homeless participants was preserved in this study. It is important to protect the identities of the participant so that there would be no "threats to their psychological well-being, health, values or dignity." Anonymity means that the participants would not be identified by name, nor would information be provided that would allow them to be identified.  Since they were not told that they were part of a study, they were deceived.  This was done to avoid demand characteristics and get the most "honest" possible answer from the participants. In order to improve the ethical standard, informed consent should be gained.  The researcher would not have to tell them exactly what she is investigating, but this would let them know that they are in a study and have the right to withdraw.  It is not clear from the study whether they had a debriefing.  This should be done to explain to the participants the goals and results of the study - and allow them to withdraw their data if they feel that they don't want their responses included.

3. Discuss how the researcher in the study could avoid bias.

There are two ways that the researcher could avoid bias. First, the research should use researcher triangulation.  Since the data was recorded after she left the center and relied on memory, it is open to bias.  Having other researchers observing as well means that the data could be compared to makes sure that it is credible and not biased by the researcher. This is particularly true of an inductive content analysis. Such data analysis is highly subjective. Did she work as part of a team in order to carry out the analysis, or did she work on it by herself? Why were such choices made, and how may it affect the interpretation of the data?  In addition, the notes that she took could be analyzed by other researchers.  Secondly, she could practice reflexivity which is when the researcher reflects on her own role in the study. Especially in a covert participant observation, it is important for the researcher to consider how her own involvement in the study may have affected her findings. The text says that she knew many of the homeless participants prior to the study. It is important to consider how the relationship which had developed with the members of the population may have affected the study. Did she respond differently to those whom she knew vs. those she did not? Did she ask leading questions?
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