Surveys: selecting the survey method

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

  1. Understand the advantages and disadvantages of observational research compared to other research methods.
  2. Understand the strengths and weaknesses in the validity of observational research findings.
  3. Know what Direct Observation is and some of the main concerns of using this method.
  4. Know what Continuos Monitoring is and what types of research it is appropriate for.
  5. Understand Time Allocation research and why you would want to use it.
  6. Know why unobtrusive research is a sticky proposition.
  7. Understand the validity issues when discussing unobtrusive observation.
  8. Know what to do in a behavior trace study.
  9. Consider when to conduct a disguised field experiment.
  10. 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 observational research.
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.
  • Direct (Reactive) Observation
    In direct observations, people know that you are watching them. The only danger is that they are reacting to you. As stated earlier, there is a concern that individuals will change their actions rather than showing you what they're REALLY like. This is not necessarily bad, however. For example, the contrived behavior may reveal aspects of social desirability, how they feel about sharing their feelings in front of others, or privacy in a relationship. Even the most contrived behavior is difficult to maintain over time. A long term observational study will often catch a glimpse of the natural behavior. Other problems concern the generalizability of findings. The sample of individuals may not be representative of the population or the behaviors observed are not representative of the individual (you caught the person on a bad day). Again, long-term observational studies will often overcome the problem of external validity. What about ethical problems you say? Ethically, people see you, they know you are watching them (sounds spooky, I know) and they can ask you to stop.

    Now here are two commonly used types of direct observations:

    1. Continuous Monitoring:
      Continuos monitoring (CM) involves observing a subject or subjects and recording (either manually, electronically, or both) as much of their behavior as possible. Continuos Monitoring is often used in organizational settings, such as evaluating performance. Yet this may be problematic due to the Hawthorne Effect. The Hawthorne Effect states that workers react to the attention they are getting from the researchers and in turn, productivity increases. Observers should be aware of this reaction. Other CM research is used in education, such as watching teacher-student interactions. Also in nutrition where researchers record how much an individual eats. CM is relatively easy but a time consuming endeavor. You will be sure to acquire a lot of data.
    2. Time Allocation:
      Time Allocation (TA) involves a researcher randomly selecting a place and time and then recording what people are doing when they are first seen and before they see you. This may sound rather bizarre but it is a useful tool when you want to find out the percent of time people are doing things (i.e. playing with their kids, working, eating, etc.). Thereare several sampling problems with this approach. First, in order to make generalizations about how people are spending their time the researcher needs a large representative sample. Sneaking up on people all over town is tough way to spend your days. In addition, questions such as when, how often, and where should you observe are often a concern. Many researchers have overcome these problems by using nonrandom locations but randomly visiting them at different times.

  • 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:

    1. 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.
    2. 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, 56, 28001-28032.

Observational Variables

Before you start on a research project make sure you how you are going to interpret your observations.

  1. Descriptive:
    Descriptive observational variables require no inference making on the part of the researcher. You see something and write it down.
  2. Inferential:
    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 computer.
  3. Evaluative:
    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!).
When 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 behavior noticeably?

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: Wadsworth.

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.

Laura Brown
Cornell University 2002