Direct observation is a method of research where the researcher watches and records the activities of individuals or groups engaged in their daily activities. The observations may be unstructured or structured. Unstructured observations involve the researcher observing people and events and recording his/her observations as field notes. Observations are recorded holistically and without the aid of a predetermined guide or protocol. Structured observation, on the other hand, is a technique where a researcher observes people and events using a guide or set protocol that has been developed ahead of time.
Other features of direct observation include:
- The observer does not actively engage the subjects of the study in conversations or interviews, but instead strives to be unobtrusive and detached from the setting.
- Data collected through direct observation may include field notes, checklists and rating scales, documents, and photographs or video images.
- Direct observation is not necessarily an alternative to other types of field methods, such as participant observation or qualitative interviews. Rather, it may be an initial approach to understanding a setting, a group of individuals, or forms of behavior prior to interacting with members or developing interview protocols.
- Direct observation as a research method is most appropriate in open, public settings where anyone has a right to be or congregate. Conducting direct observation in private or closed settings -- without the knowledge or consent of members -- is more likely to raise ethical concerns.
Participant observation is a field research method whereby the researcher develops an understanding of a group or setting by taking part in the everyday routines and rituals alongside its members. It was originally developed in the early 20th century by anthropologists researching native societies in developing countries. It is now the principal research method used by ethnographers -- specialists within the fields of anthropology and sociology who focus on recording the details of social life occurring in a setting, community, group, or society. The ethnographer, who often lives among the members for months or years, attempts to build trusting relationships so that he or she becomes part of the social setting. As the ethnographer gains the confidence and trust of the members, many will speak and behave in a natural manner in the presence of the ethnographer.
Data from participant observation studies can take several forms:
- Field notes are the primary type of data. The researcher takes notes of his/her observations and experiences and later develops them into detailed, formal field notes.
- Frequently, researchers keep a diary, which is often a more intimate, informal record of the happenings within the setting.
- The practice of participant observation, with its emphasis on developing relationships with members, often leads to both informal, conversational interviews and more formal, in-depth interviews. The data from these interviews can become part of field notes or may consist of separate interview transcripts.
There are a number of advantages and disadvantages to direct and participant observation studies. Here is a list of some of both. While the advantages and disadvantages apply to both types of studies, their impact and importance may not be the same across the two. For example, researchers engaged in both types of observation will develop a rich, deep understanding of the members of the group and the setting in which social interactions occur, but researchers engaged in participant observation research may gain an even deep understanding. And, participant observers have a greater chance of witnessing a wider range of behaviors and events than those engaged in direct observation.
Advantages of observation studies (observational research):
- Provide contextual data on settings, interactions, or individuals.
- A useful tool for generating hypotheses for further study.
- Source of data on events and phenomena that do not involve verbal interactions (e.g., mother-child nonverbal interactions and contact, physical settings where interactions occur).
- The researcher develops a rich, deep understanding of a setting and of the members within the setting.
Disadvantages of observation studies:
- Behaviors observed during direct observation may be unusual or atypical.
- Significant interactions and events may take place when observer is not present.
- Certain topics do not necessarily lend themselves to observation (e.g., attitudes, emotions, affection).
- Reliability of observations can be problematic, especially when multiple observers are involved.
- The researcher must devote a large amount of time (and resources).
- The researcher's objectivity may decline as he or she spends more time among the members of the group.
- The researcher may be faced with a dilemma of choosing between revealing and not revealing his or her identity as a researcher to the members of the group. If he or she introduces him/herself as a researcher, the members may behave differently than if they assume that he or she is just another participant. On the other hand, if the researcher does not, they may feel betrayed upon learning about the research.
Qualitative interviews are a type of field research method that elicits information and data by directly asking questions of individuals. There are three primary types of qualitative interviews: informal (conversational), semi-structured, and standardized, open-ended. Each is described briefly below along with advantages and disadvantages.
Informal (Conversational) Interviews
- Frequently occur during participant observation or following direct observation.
- The researcher begins by conversing with a member of the group of interest. As the conversation unfolds, the researcher formulates specific questions, often spontaneously, and begins asking them informally.
- Appropriate when the researcher wants maximum flexibility to pursue topics and ideas as they emerge during the exchange
Advantages of informal interviewing:
- Allows the researcher to be responsive to individual differences and to capture emerging information.
- Information that is obtained is not constrained by a predetermined set of questions and/or response categories.
- Permits researcher to delve deeper into a topic and what key terms and constructs mean to study participants.
Disadvantages of informal interviewing:
- May generate less systematic data, which is difficult to classify and analyze.
- The researcher might not be able to capture everything that the interviewee is saying and therefore there is potential for important nuance or information to be lost. For example, the researcher might not have a tape recorder at that moment due to the spontaneous nature of these interviews.
- Quality of the information obtained depends on skills of the interviewer.
- Prior to the interview, a list of predetermined questions or probes, also known as an interview guide, is developed so that each interviewee will respond to a similar series of questions and topics.
- Questions are generally open-ended to elicit as much detail and meaning from the interviewee as possible.
- The researcher is free to pursue and probe other topics as they emerge during the interview.
Advantages of semi-structured interviewing:
- Systematically captures data across interviewees.
- The researcher is able to rephrase or explain questions to the interviewee to ensure that everyone understands the questions the same way and probe (follow-up) a response so that an individual's responses are fully explored.
- Interviewee is allowed the freedom to express his or her views in their own words.
Disadvantages of semi-structured interviewing:
- Does not offer as much flexibility to respond to new topics that unfold during the interview as the informal interview.
- Responses to questions that have been asked in slightly different ways can be more difficult to compare and analyze.
- Quality of the information obtained depends on skills of the interviewer.
- Interviewer may unconsciously send signals about the types of answers that are expected.
Standardized, Open-Ended Interviews
- Similar to a survey since questions are carefully scripted and written prior to the interview, which serves to minimize variability in question wording and the way questions are asked.
- The researcher asks a uniform series of questions in the same order to each interviewee.
- The questions are open-ended to capture more details and individual differences across interviewees.
- Particularly appropriate for qualitative studies involving multiple interviewers.
Advantages of standardized interviewing:
- All questions are asked the same to each study participant. Data are comparable across interviewees.
- Reduces interviewer effects when several interviewers are used.
- Standardization helps to facilitate the processing and analysis of the data.
Disadvantages of standardized interviewing:
- Does not offer as much flexibility to respond to and probe new topics that unfold during the interview.
- Standardized wording of questions may limit the responses of those being interviewed.
Both standardized and semi-structured interviews involve formally recruiting participants and are typically tape-recorded. The researcher should begin with obtaining informed consent from the interviewee prior to starting the interview. Additionally, the researcher may write a separate field note to describe the interviewee's reactions to the interview, or events that occurred before or after the interview.
See the following for additional information about field research and qualitative research methods.
- Ethnography, Observational Research and Narrative Inquiry (PDF)
- An Introduction to Qualitative Research (PDF)
The content on this page was prepared by Jerry West. It was last updated March 2019.