OBSERVATIONAL FIELD RESEARCH
Observational Research is the process of watching people in context — in their natural
environment, doing routine activities. 1
Observational research techniques solely involve the researcher or researchers making
observations. There are many positive aspects of the observational research and also
some negative aspects (Advantages and disadvantages). For instance, before
undertaking more structured research a researcher may conduct observations in order to
form a research question. This is called descriptive research. 2
The major tool of Observational Research is videotaping. With Observational Research,
depending on the goals and needs of the study, researchers can gather anywhere from
ten to hundreds of hours of documented observations.
Researchers then work together to analyze systematically and to interpret the gathered
The goal of observational research is to capture the embodied knowledge – tacit,
nonscientific knowledge – the type of findings that cannot be uncovered in surveys and
focus groups. To that end, researchers can pay attention to minute details that can often
TYPES OF OBSERVATION S
Okay, so you've decided that you think observational research is for you. Now you only
have to pick which kind of observation to do.
Direct (Reactive) Observation In direct observations, people know that you are
watching them. The only danger is that they are reacting to you. As stated
earlier, there is a concern that individuals will change their actions rather than
showing you what they're REALLY like. This is not necessarily bad, however.
For example, the contrived behavior may reveal aspects of social desirability,
how they feel about sharing their feelings in front of others, or privacy in a
relationship. Even the most contrived behavior is difficult to maintain over time.
A long term observational study will often catch a glimpse of the natural
behavior. Other problems concern the generalizability of findings. The sample
of individuals may not be representative of the population or the behaviors
observed are not representative of the individual (you caught the person on a bad
day). Again, long-term observational studies will often overcome the problem of
external validity. What about ethical problems you say? Ethically, people see
FUNDERSTANDING. Different Types of Observational Research. Taken from:
2 BROWN, Laura. Observational Field Research. Taken from:
3 FUNDERSTANDING. Different Types of Observational Research. Taken from:
you, they know you are watching them (sounds spooky, I know) and they can
ask you to stop.
Now here are two commonly used types of direct observations:
1. Continuous Monitoring: Continuos monitoring (CM) involves observing
a subject or subjects and recording (either manually, electronically, or
both) as much of their behavior as possible. Continuos Monitoring is
often used in organizational settings, such as evaluating performance.
Yet this may be problematic due to the Hawthorne Effect. The
Hawthorne Effect states that workers react to the attention they are
getting from the researchers and in turn, productivity increases.
Observers should be aware of this reaction. Other CM research is used in
education, such as watching teacher-student interactions. Also in
nutrition where researchers record how much an individual eats. CM is
relatively easy but a time consuming endeavor. You will be sure to
acquire a lot of data.
2. Time Allocation: Time Allocation (TA) involves a researcher randomly
selecting a place and time and then recording what people are doing
when they are first seen and before they see you. This may sound rather
bizarre but it is a useful tool when you want to find out the percent of
time people are doing things (i.e. playing with their kids, working,
eating, etc.). There are several sampling problems with this approach.
First, in order to make generalizations about how people are spending
their time the researcher needs a large representative sample. Sneaking
up on people all over town is tough way to spend your days. In addition,
questions such as when, how often, and where should you observe are
often a concern. Many researchers have overcome these problems by
using nonrandom locations but randomly visiting them at different times.
Unobtrusive Observation: Unobtrusive measures involve any method for
studying behavior where individuals do NOT know they are being observed
(don't you hate to think that this could have happened to you!). Here, there is not
the concern that the observer may change the subject's behavior. When
conducting unobtrusive observations, issues of validity need to be considered.
Numerous observations of a representative sample need to take place in order to
generalize the findings. This is especially difficult when looking at a particular
group. Many groups posses unique characteristics which make them interesting
studies. Hence, often such findings are not strong in external validity. Also,
replication is difficult when using non-conventional measures (non-conventional
meaning unobtrusive observation). Observations of very specific behaviors are
difficult to replicate in studies especially if the researcher is a group participant
(we'll talk more about this later). The main problem with unobtrusive measures,
however, is ethical. Issues involving informed consent and invasion of privacy
are paramount here. An institutional review board may frown upon your study if
it is not really necessary for you not to inform your subjects.
Here is a description of two types of unobtrusive research measures you
may decide to undertake in the field:
1. Behavior Trace studies: Behavior trace studies involve findings things
people leave behind and interpreting what they mean. This can be
anything to vandalism to garbage. The University of Arizona Garbage
Project one of the most well-known trace studies. Anthropologists and
students dug through household garbage to find out about such things as
food preferences, waste behavior, and alcohol consumption. Again,
remember, that in unobtrusive research individuals do not know they are
being studied. How would you feel about someone going through your
garbage? Surprisingly Tucson residents supported the research as long as
their identities were kept confidential. As you might imagine, trace
studies may yield enormous data.
2. Disguised Field Observations: Okay, this gets a little sticky. In Disguised
field analysis the researcher pretends to join or actually is a member of a
group and records data about that group. The group does not know they
are being observed for research purposes. Here, the observer may take on
a number of roles. First, the observer may decide to become a completeparticipant in which they are studying something they are already a
member of. For instance, if you are a member of a sorority and study
female conflict within sororities you would be considered a completeparticipant observer. On the other hand you may decide to only
participate casually in the group while collecting observations. In this
case, any contact with group members is by acquaintance only. Here you
would be considered an observer-participant. Finally, if you develop an
identity with the group members but do not engage in important group
activities consider yourself a participant-observer. An example would be
joining a cult but not participating in any of their important rituals (such
as sacrificing animals). You are however, considered a member of the
cult and trusted by all of the members. Ethically, participant-observers
have the most problems. Certainly there are degrees of deception at
work. The sensitivity of the topic and the degree of confidentiality are
important issues to consider. Watching classmates struggle with testanxiety is a lot different than joining Alcoholics Anonymous. In all,
disguised field experiments are likely to yield reliable data but the ethical
dilemmas are a trade-off. 4
Guidelines for Conducting the Observation: Some guidelines for carrying out an
Be unobtrusive – Because people behave differently in the presence of others. Its
important that your participants don’t notice you.
Be objective – Your language should be clear, accurate and formal. Focus on the
behavior, not on your interpretation of it. Keep your language objective, Avoid
descriptive language that can exaggerate the behavior.
BROWN, Laura. Observational Field Research. Taken from:
Be specific – your observation should describe specific. Generalities are vague & don't
give a clear picture. For example, an observation that "the five children were each
engaged in gender biased behavior" is too general; it doesn't specifically identify what
the children were doing. "As the observation began, two of the three girls were sitting
quietly at the crafts table, while the third girl pretended to cook dinner in the play
kitchen. All three boys were building a fort with large wooden blocks." This gives a
more accurate picture to your reader of the specific behaviors you are typing as "genderbiased".
Be scientific - : Your observations should be accurate; they should be thorough &
complete; & should include nothing but your observations. (That is, unless you
observed it, avoid speculations about the possible sugar consumption that may have
preceded the children's excitement). 5
Before you start on a research project make sure you how you are going to interpret
1. Descriptive: Descriptive observational variables require no inference making on
the part of the researcher. You see something and write it down.
2. Inferential: Inferential observational variables require the researcher to make
inferences about what is observed and the underlying emotion. For example, you
may observe a girl banging on her keyboard. From this observation you may
assume (correctly) that she is frustrated with the computer.
3. Evaluative: Evaluative observational variables require the researcher to make
an inference and a judgment from the behavior. For example, you may question
whether computers and humans have a positive relationship. "Positive" is an
evaluative judgment. You observe the girl banging on her keyboard and
conclude that humans and computers do not have a positive relationship (you
know you must replicate these findings!).
When writing field notes the researcher should include descriptive as well as inferential
data. It is important to describe the setting and the mood in a detailed manner. All such
things that may change behavior need to be noted. Especially reflect upon your
presence. Do you think that you changed the behavior noticeably? 6
Observations are usually flexible and do not necessarily need to be structured around a
hypothesis (remember a hypothesis is a statement about what you expect to observe). 7
It looks at what can be obtained through watching and recording the overt behavior of
our research subjects, rather than self descriptions of the cognitive processes they claim
WATERS, Janet. Observational Research. Capilano University. 2055 Purcell Way, North Vancouver - Canada.
Taken from: http://www2.capilanou.ca/programs/psychology/students/research/observation.html
BROWN, Laura. Observational Field Research. Taken from:
to follow, obtained via mainstream research methodologies such as focus groups, depth
interviews or surveys.8
In terms of validity, observational research findings are considered to be strong.
Trochim states that validity is the best available approximation to the truth of a given
proposition, inference, or conclusion. Observational research findings are considered
strong in validity because the researcher is able to collect a depth of information about a
particular behavior. In terms of variability (legitimate) observational research findings
are considered strong. That is the best to the truth of a given proposition, inference or
There are problems with reliability and generalizability. Reliability refers the extent that
observations can be replicated. Seeing behaviors occur over and over again may be a
time consuming task. Generalizability, or external validity, is described by Trochim as
the extent that the study's findings would also be true for other people, in other places,
and at other times. In observational research, findings may only reflect a unique
population and therefore cannot be generalized to others.
There are also problems with researcher bias. Often it is assumed that the researcher
may "see what they want to see." Bias, however, can often be overcome with training or
electronically recording observations. Hence, overall, observations are a valuable tool
The time, many people don't realize that observational research may be time consuming.
In order to obtain reliability, behaviors must be observed several times. In addition,
there is also a concern that the observer's presence may change the behaviors being
SHARP, Anne and TUSTIN, Michelle. Benefits of Observational Research. University of South Australia. Taken
BROWN, Laura. Observational Field Research. Taken from: