Methods, tools and techniques describe ways to gather data.

OVERVIEW

(Adapted from: http://atlasti.com/observational-research)

Observation describes a process in which a person observes behaviour to note changes in people or places. Most simply it is learning through observing and documenting.

Observation is most common in psychology and other social sciences. It lets the researcher describe situations under study using the five senses.

Using observation in different ways

You can use observational research in different ways. Each has strengths and weaknesses, often linked to how much an evaluator influences the environment and its subjects. At one end is the controlled observation, where the researcher completely manages the environment. At the other is participant observation where the researcher joins the group to understand behaviour and changes.

Observation covers a lot of ground. It can involve just watching people, listening to everyday conversations, interviewing people and groups, filling questionnaires and checklists. In short, observing.

Naturalistic (or nonparticipant) observation happens when a researcher doesn’t intervene and studies behaviour that occurs naturally.

In participant observation, the researcher take a full part. Most commonly, this happens when the researcher joins a group to observe behaviour that otherwise would be inaccessible.

Case Studies as observation

Case Studies are a type of observational research that involve a thorough descriptive analysis of a single individual, group, or event. There is no single way to conduct a case study so researchers use a range of methods from unstructured interviewing to direct observation.

 

USEFUL RESOURCES

This Forum for Qualitative Social Research site includes a comprehensive explanation of observation methods, recommendations on what to observe, ethics in observation and tips to collect useful data.

This Observation guide from Family Health International presents the basics of conducting participant observation in applied research projects.

Characteristics of effective observers

  • Having an open, nonjudgmental attitude.
  • Being interested in learning about others.
  • Being a careful observer, recorder and a good listener.
  • Being open to the unexpected in what is learned.

Advantages

  • Allows insight into contexts, relationships and behaviour. By being able to observe the flow of behaviour in its own setting, the evidence gathered can be more credible than, say, surveys, which rely on the participants’ memory, honesty and awareness.
  • Observation is often used to generate new ideas. As it gives the person gathering evidence the opportunity to explore the total situation, it often suggests lines of enquiry and outcomes not thought of before. It can provide new information that is crucial for service improvements, project design, other data collection, and interpretation of other data.

Disadvantages & Limitations

  • Observation usually takes a lot of time compared with other methods.
  • In social services, observation requires a high level of trust between the person collecting information and participants. Sometimes service staff have easy access to the homes, workplaces and social settings that clients are part of. Often however, these settings are not open to observers, so it can be difficult to find authentic environments to observe changes in behaviour.
  • In participant observation it can be difficult to get time/privacy for recording. For example, with participant observations, researchers can’t take notes openly as this would affect their participation. This means they have to wait until they are alone and rely on memory.
  • Observations are often small-scale and conclusions may not be able to be generalised. It can also be difficult to claim the intervention was responsible for the changes observed.
  • The researcher needs to be trained or experienced enough to recognise events that are significant and worth further attention.
  • If the researcher becomes too involved they may lose objectivity and become biased. There is always the danger that we will see what we expect, or want, to see. This is a problem for anyone within an organisation doing any evaluation work.