Observational Field Research

This web page 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.

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.

And HIGHLY RECOMMENDED is Trochim's Knowledge Base which is packed with information about validity and research design.

Laura Brown
Comments: LAB19@Cornell.Edu
Thanks for Coming!