Observation is a method of qualitative research that involves systematically watching, listening to, and recording behaviors, events, or phenomena as they naturally occur in their real-world context. Researchers use observation to gain insights into social, cultural, or natural processes.
Key Characteristics of observation as a research method are:
- Naturalistic setting: Observations occur in natural settings, allowing researchers to study behavior in its authentic context. This setting enhances the research’s ecological validity, as participants are likely to behave more naturally when they are unaware of being observed.
- Participant or non-participant: Researchers may adopt a participant or non-participant role during observation. In participant observation, the researcher actively engages in the observed activities, sometimes even becoming a part of the group being studied. In non-participant observation, the researcher remains an external observer.
- Structured or unstructured: Observation can be structured, involving predefined categories or behaviors to be recorded, or unstructured, allowing the researcher to take more open-ended notes and capture unexpected phenomena.
- Direct and indirect observation: Direct observation involves observing behaviors as they occur, while indirect observation may involve reviewing recorded materials or artifacts, such as documents, videos, or archival records.
- Temporal dimension: Observations can be time-limited or extended over a more prolonged period. Longitudinal observation involves studying behaviors over an extended timeframe, while cross-sectional observation occurs at a specific point in time.
List of recommended resources #
For a broad overview #
This chapter in Research Methods in Psychology lists the various types of observational research methods and distinguishes between each. It also describes the strengths and weaknesses of each observational research method.
This blog by Scribbr gives an introductory overview of observational study used in research. The blog gives an overview of the different types of observations used in research along with examples.
For in depth understanding #
Chapter 7 of this book (“Observation”), by G. E. Gorman and Peter Clayton, gives an in-depth understanding of observation as a research method particularly used for qualitative study.
Edited By Dr Jack Sanger, this book combines anecdotal accounts, inter-professional experiences, critical debate and practical pointers to being a good observer, and explores issues surrounding observation in social science-oriented research.
Case study #
This paper explores the use of observational studies and their potential use within the field of construction research. It details the steps and considerations involved in planning an observational study, as well as the benefits and challenges that researchers may encounter when using observational research methodologies.
This article by Jenny Salmon discusses some of the complexities involved when nurse researchers seek to collect observational data on social processes in naturalistic settings using unstructured or structured observational methods in qualitative research methodology.