Observation methods of data collection in behavioral science
The Observation Method: Outline
Philosophical stances or approaches in observation
Types of observation.
Steps in observation
Technical and Ethical guidelines for observation
Challenges :The problem of bias
Tips in observation (Overcoming Limitations)
DEFINITION of the Observation
method of Research.
Scientific observation is “a systematic description of events,
behaviors, and artifacts in the social setting chosen for
study“(Kawulich 2005) .
It’s a description of perceptions from the 5 senses of sight,
hearing, touch ,taste and smell to provide a "written
photograph" of the situation under study.
Unscientific observation is unsystematic; this is the
Introspection , intuition or extrasensory observation by
the 6th sense gives rise to describable extrasensory
perception and expression of predictions and prophecies.
Importance of observation
Provides direct , “real-time” information on ongoing
and unfolding behavior, process, situation or event.
Useful when other data collection methods such as
interviews seem inappropriate.
Goals in Observation:
GOALS of observing are usually descriptive or analytic
but can also be predictive or creative in nature.
Descriptive Observation: gives how many, how much,
what ,where, when, who, why, how of phenomena
Analytic Observation: provides explanations to
associations and causal relationships
Predictive Observation :predicts new phenomena
Creative Observation: shapes or creates new social
Philosophical Perspectives or
stance of Observation.
Making observations, like any other activity in life, is
guided by beliefs or philosophical assumptions about the
nature of a)the social world, b)science, c)human nature,
d)knowledge(truth), e)reality and f)research toolkit or
The philosophical perspectives are a continuum that varies
between extreme objectivism to extreme subjectivism.
There have been shifting philosophical paradigms over
time such as positivisism, interactive symbolism,
constructivism, interpretivisism heading to a state of a
fractured future. Interpretivisism seems to be the current
philosophical position in anthropology.
Types of observations:
Vs Unsystematic observation Scientific or
unscientific methods of
Structured Observation Vs Unstructured Observation With or without
Obtrusive Vs Non-Obtrusive Influence on participants or
Direct Vs Indirect Measurement taken in
relation to behavior
Participant Observation Vs Non-participant Involvement with
Noticed Vs Unnoticed Participant awareness
Reactive Vs Non-reactive Participant reaction
Global Vs Specific such as in shadow Variety of Behaviors
Physical stances or Approaches to
1. Complete participant stance where the researcher is a member
of the group being studied and conceals his/her researcher role
from the group to avoid disrupting normal activity. This is
2. Participant as observer stance-the researcher is a member
of the group being studied and the group is aware of the
research activity. This is an emic approach where an insider
is an observer..
3. Observer as participant stance-The main role of the
researcher is to collect data and the group being studied is
aware of the researcher's observation activities.
4. Opposite extreme stance -unobtrusive and unknown to
the researcher is involved in a variety of activities of
the participants over an extended period of time that
enable him/her to observe the cultural members in
their daily lives and to participate in their activities to
facilitate a better understanding of those behaviors
The main method in ethnographic research.
In unstructured observation, the researcher enters the
field with some general ideas of what might be salient,
but not of what specifically will be observed.
Observation is holistic, unstructured, and unfocused,
with the investigator attempting to document as much
as possible about the setting and its participant.s
Technical & ethical guidelines for in
These are some of the important guidelines:
To obtain IREC approval and research permit before the study.
To introduce oneself as a researcher when meeting the community
for the first time.
To obtain consent.
To demonstrate awareness of and observe cultural norms.
To take field notes publicly to reinforce the research purpose of
To preserve the anonymity of the participants in the final write-up
and in field notes to prevent their identification.
Tips in Observation Research.
Be unobtrusive in dress and actions
Become familiar with the setting before beginning to
Keep the observations short at first to keep from
Be honest, but not too technical or detailed, in
explaining to participants what you are doing.
Steps in Observation
Consider ethical issues such as privacy, confidentiality or anonymity of
participants and informed consent
Make decisions on what and when to observe depending on the
research questions to be answered.
Conduct observations systematically.
Recording observations involves keeping field notes and sometimes
use of technology such as photography and video-recording.
Transcribing of recorded observations is an important step before final
Data Analysis methods can be done by using different approaches such
as phenomenology, inductive and deductive thematic analysis.
Conceptual analysis and constant comparative analysis may also be
Final write up is mandatory in order to complete the documentation.
Challenges in Observation
There are a variety of challenge in adopting observation as a
method of research:
The problem of Observer Bias.
Lack of Control over events and circumstances during
Ethical Issues regarding informed consent, anonymity,
confidentiality and privacy of participants.
Overcoming Challenges of the
Observation Method of Research.
The problem of bias: Triangulation, by use of different observers, can
be used to overcome observer bias when the observers agree on their
Participant reactivity: Habituation strategy can be used when it is not
possible for the observer to remain hidden. It is hoped that with time
the participants under observation get used to the observer and start to
behave naturally(Morrell 1995 ).
Lack of control of events : This is overcome when the observer chooses
to observe certain events only under certain circumstances imposed by
Ethical Issues should always be considered and addressed as part and
parcel of design and implementation of observation research.
Limitations of observation:
It is an expensive method.
The information provided is very limited.
Unforeseen factors may interfere with observational
Observation Research is an important method of data
collection in psychological anthropology.
Different types of observation exist; may be direct or
indirect, noticed or unnoticed, participant or non-
participant, structured or unstructured and global or
Scientific observation is systematic.
It is deliberate and purposeful
It is stepwise with clear technical and ethical guidelines.
However it has limitations that need to be overcome by
complementing with other research methods like
interviews of participants and use of experiments.
Dey.I (2005). Qualitative data analysis: A user-friendly
guide for social scientists Published in the Taylor & Francis
Morell 1995 quoted by Goodwin J-2010 in Research in
Psychology: methods and design 6th ed pp 454.
Kawulich, Barbara B. (2005). Participant Observation as a
Data Collection Method .
Kothari.C (2004). Research Methodology:Methods and
Techniques. Published by New Age International.