What is observation?

Observation, sometimes referred to as “participant observation” or “ethnography” is the key method of anthropology and in itself can consist of a mix of techniques; informal interviews, direct observation, participation in the life of the group, collective discussions, analyses of personal documents produced within the group, self-analysis, and life- histories, notes, diaries and transcripts are often kept and the observa­tion method can generate a lot of written material which the investiga­tor must synthesize.

Participant observation is usually undertaken over an extended period of time, ranging from several months to many years. An extended research time period means that the researcher will be able to obtain more detailed and accurate information about the people he/she is studying.

When should it be used?

Observation is more appropriate when seeking to uncover:

Observable details

Like daily time allotment. For example, the popular management consultancy technique of the “time and motion study” is a version of observation. The investigator watches the activities and actions of people involved in a process and works out the specific time allocation devoted to every single step, with the objective of improving efficiency by cutting out unnecessary or time consuming steps.

Group dynamics

If the subject of your enquiry is a collective, in this context more likely to be a partnership board or steering group rather than a tribe or sub-culture, then close attention to the dynamics of the interaction between the people involved can be very illuminating. The observation method highlights interpersonal relationships and the investigator can reflect upon social proximity and distance, observe relationships and explore body lanuage and other behaviours.

More hidden details

Like taboo behaviour. Observation can be effective in exploring or exposing secrets or the underlying realities of situations, researchers can discover discrepancies between what participants say – and often believe – should happen (the formal system) and what actually does happen, or between different aspects of the formal system; in contrast, a one-time survey of people’s answers to a set of questions might be quite consistent, but is less likely to show conflicts between different aspects of the social system or between conscious representations and behavior.

What do I need to consider?

Observation as part of a mixed methods approach

Observation may be appropriate as a part of your research strategy but it is unlikely that it would “stand alone” in the research contexts that we have been describing. It is also worth remembering that it relies very heavily upon the judgements, assumptions and prior knowledge and experience of the observer themselves.

Reliability vs Validity

Participant observation (whether overt or covert) is not the most reli­able research method. Such studies, by their very nature, are impos­sible to repeat and reliability can be further questioned in terms of the extent to which the presence of the observer actually changes the behaviour of those being studied. As soon as you do or say anything at all, you have slipped from the role of observer to participant, this boundary can be very hard to maintain.

Participant observers study people in their natural environment, gain­ing a depth of insight into behaviour that comes not simply from close, detailed, observation but also from the researcher’s own experiences within the group being studied – a technique that provides first hand insights into why people behave as they do. Participant observation does not prejudge issues and events (in the way a questionnaire may, for example) and, for these reasons it is possible to argue that such a method provides data that has a high level of validity.

Skills required

Participant observation requires a great deal of skill and commitment from the researcher. The success or failure of the research will hinge

on such factors as the ability to fit-in with the people being studied and the ability to communicate with groups members on their level and terms. It will also, at different times, require tact, clear and careful observation, the ability to separate the role of participant from that of observer and so forth. In other words, before committing yourself to participant observation you need to be certain you have the time, resources and skills required to carry this type of research.

What is produced?

A key feature of participant observation is that data should be col­lected in ways that cause as little disruption as possible to the ordinary activities of the research context. The recording of information largely depends on the research situation. Fieldnotes are generally kept and sometimes it is possible to use tape recorders and video recorders. Whichever methods of recording information are used it is important to be detailed and to devise a system that allows easy retrieval of infor­mation.

How should the data be analysed?

Analysis and interpretation of data is undertaken in a similar way to analysing and interpreting data gathered by other qualitative research methods, as detailed in other sections of this handbook.

Pros Cons
Observation Deep and nuanced picture can emerge Relies on observer to read social reality "accurately"
A flexible method that can react to events / ideas, follow leads, pursue avenues of research that had not been considered Hard to maintain observer role
Gives a researcher insights into individual and group behavior period and it may allow them to formulate hypotheses that explain such behavior Can a significant time need

Further reading

Collecting data through observation, Web Centre for Social Re­search Methods – Understand the advantages and disadvantages of observational research compared to other research methods.


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