What is Observation?
Observation is a systematic data collection
approach. Researchers use all of their
senses to examine people in natural settings or
naturally occurring situations.
Observation of a field setting often involves:
prolonged engagement in a setting or social situation
clearly expressed, self-conscious notations of how
observing is done
methodical and tactical improvisation in order to
develop a full understanding of the setting of interest
imparting attention in ways that is in some sense
recording one's observations
Participant observation "combines participation
in the lives of the people being studied with
maintenance of a professional distance that
allows adequate observation and recording of
data" (Fetterman, 1998)
Participant observation underscores the
person's role as participant in the social setting
he or she observes. The range of roles one may
play as a participant observer have been
describe by Gold (1958).
Non-participant observation is observation with no or
limited interaction with the people one observes.
Some observational data can be
collected unobtrusively using erosion and accretion
Researchers who study how people communicate
often want to examine the details of how people talk
and behave together. In special cases, a recording
device may be used..
Non-participant observation provides limited insight
into the meaning of the social context being studied
and is often combined with participant observation.
Raymond Gold’s Typology (1958)
The complete participant - takes an insider role, is fully
part of the setting and often observes covertly.
The participant as observer - the researcher gains access
to a setting by virtue of having a natural and non-research
reason for being part of the setting. As observers, they are
part of the group being studied. This approach may be
common in health care settings where members of the
health care team are interested in observing operations in
order to understand and improve care processes.
The observer as participant - In this role, the researcher
or observer has only minimal involvement in the social
setting being studied. There is some connection to the
setting but the observer is not naturally and normally part of
the social setting.
The complete observer - the researcher does not take part
in the social setting at all. An example of complete
observation might be watching children play from behind a
Fieldnotes, Jotted Notes and Protocols
Observers often use multiple methods to gather
One primary approach involves writing fieldnotes.
Researchers may want to create and use an
observational protocol (template) to guide
Theories and concepts can be used in constructing
protocols and can result in focused data collection
However, protocols or templates can deflect
attention from unnamed and unanticipated
categories that may be important to understanding
a phenomenon and a setting
Creswell (1998) recommends use of a
“protocol” when collecting data to organize
information and help keep research on track
i.e. an interview schedule, a moderator’s
guide or an observational protocol
Used for unobtrusive observation
To record main observations, snippets of
Written by hand on scrap of paper, napkin,
As soon as possible after observation
ends, detailed field notes are written, using
jotted notes and memory as a guide.
Select a site to be observed
At the site, identify who or what to observe
Determine what your role as observer will be
Design an observational protocol as a method
for recording notes in the field
Record aspects such as the physical setting,
particular events and activities, and your own
Withdraw from the site and as soon as possible,
write a detailed description of your experience
Guidelines for Note-taking
Don’t rely on memory alone
If complete field notes not feasible, use
jotted notes and then write field notes
Take notes in stages
Record everything possible