1. Observation method
The observation method is the most commonly used method especially in studies relating to behavioral sciences. In a way we all observe things around us, but this sort of observation is not scientific observation. Observation becomes a scientific tool and the method of data collection for the researcher, when it serves a formulated research purpose, is systematically planned and recorded and is subjected to checks and controls on validity and reliability. Under the observation method, the information is sought by way of investigator’s own direct observation without asking from the respondent (Mason 84). .
Why choose observation?1.1
Observation can allow researchers to understand much more about what goes on in complex real -world situations than they can ever discover simply by asking questions of those who experience them and by looking only at what is said about them in questionnaires and interviews. This may be because interviewees and questionnaire respondents are sometimes reluctant to impart everything they know, perhaps feeling it would be improper or insensitive to do so, or because they consider some things to be insignificant or irrelevant. It is more likely the case, however, that they are unable to provide information about certain events or activities, if asked outright, because they occur so regularly or appear so unremarkable and mundane that they are hardly aware of them at all.
Despite the term’s connotations, there is much more to observation than just looking. Of course looking is at the heart of all observation, but the best observational researchers are skilled in a technique of looking in a focused and systematic way. In fact, observation involves a range of skills, of which observing is just one. Others include listening, participating, contributing, pursuing, questioning, communicating, interacting, sharing, refraining, retreating, negotiating, timing, recording, describing, and so on. If you plan to conduct observational studies you should be prepared to engage in some or all of these activities, sometimes simultaneously, which can be at best challenging and at worst exhausting ( Wilkinson117).
Before you embark on your observations, however, the very first thing to do is to decide whether this research instrument is for you; whether your
approach to research and to the problem, issue or question you are interested in exploring are suited to observational research methods.
When to use observation in your research?1.2
When the ways in which people behave and interact with one another in a social setting are important to your research.
When you are interested in researching social settings and what happens in them.
When the best way to research what you want to know is to experience it for yourself.
When the context of the events you are researching is important. As a useful supplement to other research instruments.
When a flexible approach to research is needed ( Wilkinson117).
2. Advantages and disadvantages
2.1. What are the advantages of observation?
Collect data where and when an event or activity is occurring.
Does not rely on people’s willingness or ability to provide information. Allows you to directly see what people do rather than relying on what people say they did.
This method is particularly suitable in studies which deal with subjects (i.e., respondents) who are not capable of giving verbal reports of their feelings for one reason or the other (Cothari 96).
2.2. What are the disadvantages of observation?
Susceptible to observer bias.
Susceptible to the “hawthorne effect,” that is, people usually perform better when they know they are being observed, although indirect observation may decrease this problem. Can be expensive and time-consuming compared to other data collection methods. Does not increase your understanding of why people behave as they do.
3. Types of observation:
3.1. Overt vs. covert
Observations can be overt (everyone knows they are being observed) or covert (no one knows they are being observed and the observer is concealed). The benefit of covert observation is that people are more likely to behave naturally if they do not know they are being observed. However, you will typically need to conduct overt observations because of ethical problems related to concealing your observation.
3.2. Direct vs. Indirect
Observations can also be either direct or indirect. Direct observation is when you watch interactions, processes, or behaviors as they occur; for example, observing a teacher teaching a lesson from a written curriculum to determine whether they are delivering it with fidelity. Indirect observations are when you watch the results of interactions, processes, or behaviors; for example, measuring the amount of plate waste left by students in a school cafeteria to determine whether a new food is acceptable to them.
3.3. Structured vs. unstructured
In case the observation is characterised by a careful definition of the units to be observed, the style of recording the observed information, standardised conditions of observation and the selection of pertinent data of observation, then the observation is called as structured observation. But when observation is to take place without these characteristics to be thought of in advance, the same is termed as unstructured observation. Structured observation is considered appropriate in descriptive studies, whereas in an exploratory study the observational procedure is most likely to be relatively unstructured (Cothari 96).
3.4. Participant vs. non-participant
We often talk about participant and non-participant types of observation in the context of studies, particularly of social sciences. This distinction depends upon the observer’s sharing or not sharing the life of the group he is observing. If the observer observes by making himself, more or less, a member of the group he is observing so that he can experience what the members of the group experience, the observation is called as the participant observation. But when the observer observes as a detached emissary without any attempt on his part to experience through participation what others feel, the observation of this type is often termed as non-participant observation. (When the observer is observing in such a manner that his presence may be unknown to the people he is observing, such an observation is described as disguised observation.)
There are several merits of the participant type of observation: (i) The researcher is enabled to record the natural behaviour of the group. (ii) The researcher can even gather information which could not easily be obtained if he observes in a disinterested fashion. (iii) The researcher can even verify the truth of statements made by informants in the context of a questionnaire or a schedule. But there are also certain demerits of this type of observation viz., the observer may lose the objectivity to the extent he participates emotionally; the problem of observation-control is not solved; and it may narrow down the researcher’s range of experience(Cothari 96).
3.5. controlled vs. uncontrolled
Sometimes we talk of controlled and uncontrolled observation. If the observation takes place in the natural setting, it may be termed as uncontrolled observation, but when observation takes place according to definite pre-arranged plans, involving experimental procedure, the same is then termed controlled observation. In non-controlled observation, no attempt is made to use precision instruments. The major aim of this type of observation is to get a spontaneous picture of life and persons. It has a tendency to supply naturalness and completeness of behavior, allowing sufficient time for observing it. But in controlled observation, we use mechanical (or precision) instruments as aids to accuracy and standardization.
Such observation has a tendency to supply formalized data upon which generalizations can be built with some degree of assurance. The main pitfall of non-controlled observation is that of subjective interpretation. There is also the danger of having the feeling that we know more about the observed phenomena than we actually do. Generally, controlled observation takes place in various experiments that are carried out in a laboratory or under controlled conditions, whereas uncontrolled observation is resorted to in case of exploratory researches (Cothari 97).
Mason, Jennifer. Qualitative Researching. London: SAGE Publications, 2002.
Cothari, C.R. Research Methodology: Methods and Techniques. New Delhi: New age international publishers, 2004.
Wilkinson, David And Peter Birmingham. Using Research Instruments: a Guide for Researchers. London: Routledge Falmer, 2003.