Observational Field Research
This is designed as an introduction to the basic issues and design
options in observational research within natural settings. Observational
research techniques solely involve the researcher or researchers making
observations. There are many positive aspects of the observational research
approach. Namely, 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). For instance, before undertaking more structured
research a researcher may conduct observations in order to form a research
question. This is called descriptive research. 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. However, there are negative aspects.
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 for researchers.
First this Web Page will discuss the appropriate situations to use
observational field research. Second, the various types of observations research
methods are explained. Finally, observational variables are discussed. This
page's emphasis is on the collection rather the analysis of data.
After reading this web page, you should be able to
- Understand the advantages and disadvantages of observational research
compared to other research methods.
- Understand the strengths and weaknesses in the validity of observational
- Know what Direct Observation is and some of the main concerns of using
- Know what Continuos Monitoring is and what types of research it is
- Understand Time Allocation research and why you would want to use it.
- Know why unobtrusive research is a sticky proposition.
- Understand the validity issues when discussing unobtrusive observation.
- Know what to do in a behavior trace study.
- Consider when to conduct a disguised field experiment.
- Know the observational variables.
Should you or shouldn't you collect your data through observation?
Questions to consider:
- Is the topic sensitive?
- Are people uncomfortable or unwilling to answer questions about a
particular subject? For instance, many people are uncomfortable when asked
about prejudice. Self-reports of prejudice often bring biased answers.
Instead, a researcher may choose to observe black and white students
interactions. In this case, observations are more likely to bring about more
accurate data. Thus, sensitive social issues are better suited for
- Can you observe the Phenomena?
- You must be able to observe what is relevant to your study. Let's face it,
you could observe and observe but if you never see what your studying your
wasting your time. You can't see attitudes. Although you can observe behaviors
and make inferences about attitudes. Also, you can't be everywhere. There are
certain things you can't observe. For example, questions regarding sexual
behavior are better left to a survey.
- Do you have a lot of 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 observed. As time goes on, however, the subjects
are more likely to grow accustomed to your presence and act normally. It is in
the researchers best interest to observe for a long period of time.
- Are you not sure what your looking for?
- That's okay! Known as descriptive research, observations are a great way
to start a research project. Let's say you are interested in male and female
behavior in bars. You have no idea what theory to use or what behavior you are
interested in looking for. So, you watch, and, wow, you see something. Like
the amount of touching is related to alcohol consumption. So you run to the
library, gather your research, and maybe decide to do more observations or
supplement your study with surveys. Then, these observations turn into a
theory once they are replicated (well, it's not quite that simple). So you
see, observations are a good place to start.
Types of Observations
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.
- Unobtrusive Observation:
Unobtrusive measures involves 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 a
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:
- 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.
- 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
complete-participant 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 complete-participant
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 sacraficing
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 test-anxiety 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.
An Interesting Side Note:|
The protection of
human rights from unethical research practices was heightened as a
consequence of the Nazi regime in Germany. The Nuremberg Code was adopted
following the trials of the twenty-three Nazi physicians convicted of
crimes against humanity. This Code provided a statement concerning the
rights of human participants to be informed and freely choose to
participate in research. The Nuremberg Code has since influenced policies
of ethical research practices in several countries.
Federal Register (1991). Federal policy for the protection
of human subjects; notices and rules, part II. Federal register,
Before you start on a research project make sure you how you are going to
interpret your observations.
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
Descriptive observational variables require no
inference making on the part of the researcher. You see something and write it
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
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!).
Okay, so this is a lot to remember. Go back up to the check-list of "things
you should be able to..." and ask yourself some questions. Remember,
observations are a great way to start and add to a research project.
Good luck observing!
and Suggested Reading
Babbie, E. (1992).
The practice of social research. (6th ed.). Chapter 11. California:
Bernard, R. (1994). Research methods in anthropology. (2nd ed.)
Chapters 14-15. California: AltaMira.
Gall, M., Borg., & Gall, J. (1996). Educational research. (6th
ed.). Chapter 9. New York: Longman.
Montgomery, B. & Duck, S. (1991). Studying interpersonal
interaction. Chapter 11. New York: Guilford.
Cornell University 2002