Observational Method

Observational Method

This module describes the observational method of descriptive research and discusses its uses.

Learning Objectives

  • Define observational research
  • List reasons researchers use the observational method
  • List and describe the three basics types of observational methods and provide examples
  • Explain the different ways that data is recorded when using the observational method
  • Describe the benefits of using the observational method


Begin this module by watching the following video, Research Methods – Observation.  This short video provides an excellent overview of observational research, including the history of this method, its common uses, and the common methods used in observational research.

Observational research is defined as the method of viewing and recording the actions and behaviors of participants.  It is described as being a systematic observation method, which implies that the observation techniques are sensible and replicable procedures so that the research could be reproduced.  As the name describes, “observational” methods are all about observing the participants.  There is no experiment conducted and no variables are manipulated.  The observations are made without disturbing, influencing or altering the environment or the participants in any way.  Researchers simply use all of their senses to observe participants in either a natural setting or a naturally occurring situation.

There are a variety of reasons that observational research is chosen as the most appropriate method of collecting data for a particular research question.  Following is a list of some of those reasons and situations: 

  • If research question is attempting to a questions of “how” or “what type”.
  • When it is important that the research take place in a natural setting so the phenomenon or behavior is not influenced or disturbed in any way.
  • When it is important to understand the setting that the observation is taking place in and how that may play a role in the results.
  • If a topic has not been previously studied and little is known, it may be best to begin with observation in a natural setting. This may provide the foundation for further study and hypothesis development in the future.
  • The actual behavior of the participants has the potential to be different from what those individuals might report if they were asked.

There are three main types of observational methods based primarily on the extent to which the researcher controls or interacts with the environment.  The following list describes the three methods and provides an example of each.

Naturalistic Observation - This method takes place in the natural, every day setting of the participants. In naturalistic observation, there is no intervention by the researcher. This type of observational method is sometimes referred to nonparticipant observation.   In fact, the researcher typically attempts to carry out the observations without the knowledge of the participants.  In this way, the researcher is able to observe the spontaneous, natural behavior of the participants in their natural surroundings.  The advantage of this type of method is the increased ecological validity.  The disadvantages of this method are that the observations usually take place on a small scale with a small sample size and the participants may not truly be representative of the larger population.  Naturalistic observations may also more difficult to replicate.  Example:  A researcher may use naturalistic observation to study the behaviors and interactions of pre-school aged children on a playground at recess.

Participant Observation - In participant observation, the researcher intervenes in the environment in some manner.  Typically, the researcher will insert himself/herself in to the group as a member of the group.  This is done to be able to observe behaviors that may otherwise not be accessible to the researcher. The observations can either be covert or overt.  If they are covert, the researcher is under cover and his or her real identity and purpose are concealed.  If the observations are overt, the researcher will reveal his or her real identity and intent and will ask permission to make the observations. The advantage is that it provides a deeper insight into the participants.  The disadvantages are that it may be difficult to get the time and privacy to record observations if they are covert and there is the danger that the researcher may become “too close” and lose objectivity, resulting in bias.  Example:   A researcher may want to study the behaviors and habits of a particular religious group and joins the group in order to gain access.

Controlled Observation – This type of observational method is carried out under controlled, arranged conditions, often in a laboratory setting.  Controlled observations are overt as the researcher will explain the purpose of the research and the participants know they are being observed.  Each test subject is exposed to the same situation in order to examine differences between individual reactions.  The advantage of this type of method is that the study is reproducible and therefore, can be tested for reliability.  These studies are often fairly quick and can accommodate a larger sample size as well.  The data is often coded to be numerical in nature which allows for less time consuming data analysis.  The disadvantage is that this type of method may have less validity due to the Hawthorne effect, which states that participants may behave differently when they know that they are being watched.   Example:  A researcher is conducting sleep studies on trauma victims to examine the impact of traumatic events on sleep patterns and habits.

Regardless of the type of observational method used, the researcher must have a plan for recording data.  The types of data collected may take many forms:

  • Written narrative field notes – This is the most descriptive and detailed form of data collection, but also the most difficult to analyze.
  • Templates or observation coding sheets – These forms for recording observation may make it possible to “code” observations of behaviors in such a way that they can be assigned a numerical value. This makes both recording and data analysis much easier.
  • Audio/visual recordings – It is often desirable to have recordings to refer back to as the data is being analyzed. Audio/visual recordings are commonly done in conjunction with hand-written recordings.

The researcher must also determine the method of sampling and when to record data.  In event sampling, the researcher determines which behaviors are of interest and records all occurrences, ignoring all other behavior.  With time sampling, the observations take place for pre-determined periods of time such as 1 hour per day.  Finally, instantaneous sampling determines, in advance, particular times (instances) when observations will be made.  The types of data recording methods and sampling methods are important to the reproducibility of the study.


Suggested Readings

Becker, H., & Geer, B. (1957). Participant observation and interviewing: A comparison. Human organization, 16(3), 28-32.
Bernard, H. R., & Bernard, H. R. (2012). Social research methods: Qualitative and quantitative approaches. Sage.
Burt, C. (1922). Research in education.
Concato, J., Shah, N., & Horwitz, R. I. (2000). Randomized, controlled trials, observational studies, and the hierarchy of research designs. New England Journal of Medicine, 342(25), 1887-1892.
Creswell, J. W. (2013). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches. Sage publications.
Jorgensen, D. L. (1989). Participant observation. John Wiley & Sons, Inc..
Knupfer, N. N., & McLellan, H. (1996). Descriptive research methodologies. Handbook of research for educational communications and technology, 1196-1212.
Mertens, D. M. (1998). Research methods in education and psychology: Integrating diversity with quantitative & qualitative approaches.
Neuman, W. L., & Neuman, W. L. (2006). Social research methods: Qualitative and quantitative approaches.
Rosenthal, R., & Rosnow, R. L. (1991). Essentials of behavioral research: Methods and data analysis. McGraw-Hill Humanities Social.
Svensson, L. (1984). Three Approaches to Descriptive Research.

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