Observation is a research method that enables researchers to systematically observe and record people’s behaviour, actions and interactions.(Hennink, Hutter, & Bailey, 2020, p.170)

Interested in learning about people’s actions, behaviours and their social interactions in real-time? Want to know more about what influences how people behave and act? Curious to understand more about the context and the environment in which people live? If so, you could consider doing an observational study.

Observational studies have long been used by researchers to:

  • observe people’s actions and behaviours first-hand. This can help to put things into perspective and explore how things people say they do actually unfold in practice (Merriam & Tisdell, 2016).
  • describe specific places or social settings in detail and learn how people interact with their social, built and natural environments.
  • gain insight into the relations within and between groups and communities (Mulhall, 2002).
  • find out about cultural norms and activities within the community (Hennink, Hutter, & Bailey, 2020).

 

Getting started

Starting your observation can be challenging. What should you focus on in terms of the context? What behaviours, actions and interactions are relevant to record for your study?

To illustrate how to find your way into an observation, let’s use a concrete example based on an article by Srivarathan and colleagues (2020) called, “Social relations, community engagement and potentials: A qualitative study exploring resident engagement in a community-based health promotion intervention in a deprived social housing area.”

The aim of the research was to explore how people living in a deprived housing area in Copenhagen perceived engaging in a community-based health promotion intervention that focussed on enhancing social relations. The intervention was co-produced with participants and consisted of social outings and visits to historical landmarks in Denmark.

To learn how participants perceived and engaged with the intervention, the researchers asked:

  • What motives do residents have for engaging in the interventions, and what do they perceive to be the outcome of their engagement?
  • What barriers and what potential for improvement are identified concerning resident engagement in the interventions?

To address these questions, the researchers observed how residents engaged with their environment during the social outings and visits to historical landmarks. Their observations were helped by a team guide consisting of the questions listed below:

  • Non-human actors and context. What is the time available for interaction? What is the space/location of the interventions?
  • Human actors. What groupings, divisions and positions take place? Can you describe the atmosphere? What interactions between residents/researchers/other people are taking place?
  • Communication. What is articulated before, during and after the interventions and what is left unspoken (everyday life context, need for activities, social relations)? Who brings up topics during the conversations and how are they responded to?
  • Body language. What non-verbal communication and reactions can you observe?

A guide like this is useful when carrying out qualitative observations to create data relevant to the research objectives and questions. You could consider developing a similar guide for your own project to ensure you focus on relevant aspects of the context, behaviours, actions and interactions.

Types of Observation

There are different types of observations. They can range from participant observation to non-participant observation.

Participant observation: Participant observation is when the researcher directly interacts with the participants and the activities they are engaged in (Mulhall, 2002). Besides ‘observing’, the researcher can also carry out informal conversations and even interviews with participants to gain additional information about their actions and behaviours.

To illustrate this, let’s return to the example above by Srivarathan and colleagues. When carrying out their study, they used participant observation. That is, the researchers actively participated in the social outings and visits to historical landmarks trying to adopt the perspective of their participants. While taking part in the activities, they also talked to the participants about their experiences and took fieldnotes of their observations following the guide outlined above.

Non-participant observation: Non-participant observation is when the research “observes people, activities or events from a distance” (Hennink, Hutter, & Bailey, 2020, p.185). The researcher does not participate in the situation they are observing.

For example, had Srivarathan and colleagues decided to conduct a non-participatory study to explore people’s perceptions and engagement with the intervention, they would not have taken an active part in the outings. Instead, they would have observed more detached what people were doing and talking about.

The diagram below further highlights the differences between participant observation and non-participant observation by paying attention to how visible the researcher is in the process.

Chapter 3: Participation Observation (Guest, Namey, & Mitchell, 2012)

Recording data

All observations require a method to record data. There are different ways you can go about this:

  • Written notes, often referred to as field notes, can include text, pictures, diagrams and other illustrative materials
  • Video recordings of what you are observing
  • Photography providing snapshots of particular situations
  • Sound recording to capture crucial aspects of the context

(Based on Wragg, 2011; Hennink, Hutter, & Bailey, 2020)

Limitations

It is important to consider the weaknesses of qualitative observations. These include:

  • Gaining consent to observe people and communities can be difficult
  • Accessing research sites may be challenging. It can involve negotiation and approval from multiple individuals and groups, including professionals.
  • Acquiring participants’ trust and buy-in can take a lot of effort and may be time consuming

(Based on Mulhall, 2002)

To learn more about qualitative observations, explore the resources below.

(Author: Mayah Ramachandran)

What is it?

Books:

Collecting qualitative data, introduction to social research: Quantitative and qualitative approaches by Keith Punch (2014)

This book explains the different aspects of qualitative research design. Section 8.2 describes observations outlining the different approaches to observations, the practical issues of observations, and how to improve the quality of your observation data.

(Academic reference: Punch, K. F. (2013). Introduction to social research: Quantitative and qualitative approaches. Sage.)

Being a careful observer, qualitative research: A guide to design and implementation (Chapter 6) by Sharan Merriam and Elizabeth Tisdel (2015)

Chapter 6 in Merriam and Tisdel’s book, Being a Careful Observer, highlights the importance of observation within qualitative research. It outlines what to observe, how to observe and gives practical considerations. It also describes the overlapping relationship between the observer and the participant. The chapter additionally explains how to write field notes, including an example of field notes written from a study investigating adult education in Korea.

(Academic reference: Merriam, S. B., &Tisdell, E. J. (2015). Qualitative research: A guide to design and implementation. John Wiley & Sons.)

Participant observations, action research methods (Chapter 3) by Gail Zieman and Sheri Klein (2012)

The Participant Observation chapter by Gail Zieman explains how the researcher can have varying levels of interaction and visibility when participating in an observation. Zieman discusses how participant observation can be used to research educational settings and explains the important role of teachers as a participant observer.

Academic reference: (Zieman, G. (2012). Chapter 3-Particapnt observations. In Klein, S. Action, research methods. SAGE Publications)

Websites:

What is qualitative observation? Definition, types and best practices by Nick Jain (n.d)

This website gives a short summary of qualitative observation. It defines qualitative observation, explains the characteristics and the different types of observation. It features seven examples, each conducting qualitative observation within different research fields. The website concludes with ‘Top 8 Qualitative Observation Best Practices’ to improve validity and reliability of an observation.

(Academic reference: Jain, Nick. (n.d.) What is qualitative observation? Definition, types and best practices. IdeaScale. https://ideascale.com/blog/what-is-qualitative-observation/)

How is it done?

Books:

Observations, qualitative research methods (Chapter 9) by Monique Hennink, Inge Hutter, and Ajay Bailey (2020)

Chapter 9 provides a comprehensive guide to qualitative observation. It defines observation and outlines when to conduct them, types of observation and how to record observational data. It includes two examples of non-participant observation; one conducted in the Netherlands investigating burial places and the other observing the activities of women in a hotel in East Africa. The book also explains how to write field notes, field diaries and reports. It concludes with a table summarising the strengths and limitations of observation.

(Academic reference: Hennink, M., Hutter, I., Bailey, B. (2020). Qualitative research method. Sage.)

Websites:

The ultimate guide to qualitative research – Part 2: Handling qualitative data. Field notes in research by ATLAS.ti (n.d)

If you decide to record observational data in the form of field notes, this website is a short, useful guide. It explains what field notes are, explaining their purpose within qualitative research. The website demonstrates how to write field notes, stating the importance of descriptive observations, reflective notes, methodological notes, sketches and diagrams. It offers suggestions on how to prepare for fieldwork and the considerations for qualitative data analysis.

(Academic reference: ATLAS.ti. (n.d.) The Ultimate guide to qualitative research – Part 2: Handling qualitative data. Field notes in research. https://atlasti.com/guides/qualitative-research-guide-part-2/field-notes)

Method in action

Articles:

Social relations, community engagement and potentials: A qualitative study exploring resident engagement in a community-based health promotion intervention in a deprived social housing area by Abirami Srivarathan, Rikke Lund, Ulla Christensen, and Maria Kristiansen (2020)

This research study explores the perspectives of residents living in deprived housing in Copenhagen when faced with a community-based health promotion intervention to enhance social relations. Srivarathan and colleagues conducted semi structured interviews alongside participant observations which occurred over six months. They observed residents within the housing area as well as when they attended social outings and visited to historical landmarks in Denmark.

(Academic reference: Srivarathan, A., Lund, R., Christensen, U., & Kristiansen, M. (2020). Social relations, community engagement and potentials: A qualitative study exploring resident engagement in a community-based health promotion intervention in a deprived social housing area. International Journal of Environmental Research & Public Health17(7), 2341. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17072341)

“What matters to me”: A multi-method qualitative study exploring service users’, carers’ and clinicians’ needs and experiences of therapeutic engagement on acute mental health wards by Sarah McAllister, Alan Simpson, Vicki Tsianakas and Glenn Robert (2021)

This article used non-participant observation and semi-structured interviews to investigate service users’ and clinicians’ experience of therapeutic engagement in acute hospital wards. A mental health nurse trained in research methods conducted 80-hours observation, recording nurse-patient interactions on a mental health ward. Observation field notes were coded and thematically analysed to understand the nature of the nurse-patient interactions.

(Academic reference: McAllister, S., Simpson, A., Tsianakas, V., & Robert, G. (2021). “What matters to me”: A multi‐method qualitative study exploring service users’, carers’ and clinicians’ needs and experiences of therapeutic engagement on acute mental health wards. International Journal of Mental Health Nursing30(3), 703-714.)

A qualitative study in a rural community: Investigating the attitudes, beliefs, and interactions of young children and their parents regarding storybook read alouds by Natalie Conrad Barnyak (2011)

This article is a qualitative research study investigating the attitudes and beliefs about reading aloud held by young rural families in Western Pennsylvania . Families participated in semi-structured interviews and non-participant observation. Barnyak observed family reading sessions via video recordings which were later analysed. The author then compared the semi-structured interviews and the observation data, to understand how the observed interactions aligned with the parent’s self-reported attitudes about reading books with their children.

(Academic reference: Barnyak, N. C. (2011). A Qualitative Study in a Rural Community: Investigating the Attitudes, Beliefs, and Interactions of Young Children and Their Parents Regarding Storybook Read Alouds. Early Childhood Education Journal39, 149-159.)