Introduction: Observation as a Research Method

What comes to mind when you think of “observation”? Perhaps, you think of yourself sitting down and viewing  others without interruption? Or that you are participating and still observing and taking notes?  What is it about  observation that makes the method effective? What are some the research methods strengths and  limitations? How is observation effectively used in research? and what are the ethical considerations when observation is involved? These common themes and questions will be addressed throughout this paper.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines observation as “the action or process of observing something or someone carefully or in order to gain information.” The words “carefully” and “information” are important in this definition as these words provide what is at the core of observation and it’s connection to research. “As an ethnographic research method, observation seems to have no specific beginning. While some researchers found indications of its use in ancient times, others have pointed to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries” (Baker, 2006, 171).  Observation has been used as a method of gathering data in the field of research and Auguste Comte, better known as the father of sociology, called observation one of the “four core research methods” (Baker, 2006, 171). It is also a complex process, in that it requires the researcher to play more than one role, and to use all his/her senses to in order to effectively collect data. At the same time, a researcher must remember that he/she is observing and remain detached enough from the subjects in order to be able to observe and collect the data that is suited to the research question and goals. As Sykes explains, Observation can be used to gather data by watching events or behaviors in its natural environment (Sykes, R. E, 1977). Furthermore, observation is unique in that it can be used both as a research method and as a data collection method (Powell & Connaway, 2004).

Overview: Types of Observations

Observations can be structured, semi-structured, or unstructured. Researchers often use a checklist to conduct structured observations as they are interested to study specific themes or explore specific issues. On the other hand, unstructured observations do not follow a checklist; they record all the data (O’Leary, 2014).

Observations can be divided into direct or indirect observation. Direct observation is often defined as observing events or behaviors as they occur without altering the environment in which the events occur. This can be explained by an example of a teacher being observed while he/she executes the class plan for the day. Indirect observation is observing the results of an interaction or behavior. Indirect observation can be explained by receiving feedback from the students about how the teacher performed during his/her class activity (Seale C, 2004).

Another way researchers use the tool of observation is by placing  a focus on participant observation and splitting it into Overt or Covert. Overt observation requires the researcher to be open about his/her intentions and  requires the researcher to inform the participants in order to ensure that they are aware of what is happening.  A critical advantage of overt observation is that it enables the researcher to build some kind of rapport with the participants because the researcher, from the very beginning, is open and honest about the intentions of his/her research. However the  perceived weakness of this method is that it could allow the participants, to change their behavior in that it aligns with the researcher’s goals since they are aware of what the researcher is looking for. Overt observation is apparent  when the subject being observed is aware of the presence of the observer,  while covert observation is best exemplified when the observed is unaware or the presence of the observer. Covert form of observation is preferred in the field of observational research because it preserves the natural behavior of the one being observed which ensures allows minimal bias in the observed behaviors.  On the contrary, overt observations have been preferred to avoid ethical dilemmas in research (Savage J, 2000). A limitation of cover observation is research bias can play a role in the results of the research.

Key considerations when using observation as a research method

According to O’leary (2014), Researchers need to plan their observations carefully and consider the following things before they use it as a research method.

  • The type of Observation Study: This includes direct, indirect, covert, overt/candid, participant, and nonparticipant types of observation. It’s interesting to note that O’leary (2014) uses different terminologies to describe some aspects of observations. For example, other authors have usually used the term “overt” to describe observations that disclose researcher’s identity. However, O’leary (2014) uses the term candid to describe the same concept.
  • Researchers need to think about our population and the people we are going to observe. In research terminology, the latter is referred as our sample.
  • Awareness of the environment in the observational study. This specifically includes the cultural background.
  • A checklist to explore specific themes that fit well to their research question. This is done when the researcher is planning to conduct a structured observation.
  • Timeline
  • Ethical considerations
  • Planning for the unexpected: A researcher should always have a contingency plan if their original plan doesn’t work out during their observational study.

How observation compared/contrasted by different scholars:

There are several advantages and disadvantages of Observation as a data collection modality (Cohen L, Manion L et al, 2000).

The advantages include collecting data at the site of activity, data collection is independent of the participant’s willingness to participate and decreased bias like recall bias as information is being collected first hand by the researcher.

The disadvantages are an increased likelihood of “Hawthorne effect” which means that the observed is conscious of the observer’s presence and performs better than how they would in an unobserved situation, potential of observation bias where the observer only observes activities of interest and lastly that it only allows the observer to observe a certain event or behavior without understanding the reasons behind those behaviors or events.

As Lynda  Baker suggests, that “observational research differs from the other methods in that it requires the research to have more specialized training on how to observe, what and how to record the data, how to enter the field and leave it, and how to remain detached and involved at the same time” (Baker 2006, 187 ). This is clearly a challenge to  the method of observation. Researchers would need to be highly skilled to perform accurate and ethical observational techniques.

Ethical Considerations:

With the technique of observation come a multitude of factors around ethics, and ethical considerations. Privacy concerns are often sited as an ethical obstacle to overcome for the researcher and participants. This is hangup can often occur when applying for Behavioural Research Ethics Board Approval (BREB or Institutional Review Boards (IRB). According to Spradley, (1980, pp. 21-25)  he recommends that researchers follow the American Anthropological Association in terms of the 6 steps.

  1. Study participants come first
  2. Their rights, interests, and sensitivities should be safeguarded by the researcher
  3. Participants have the right to know the aims of the researcher
  4. The privacy of the participants must be protected
  5. The participant should not be exploited or harmed in any way
  6. Reports should be made available not only to sponsors but also to the participants and the general public.


Even though observation may seem to be a simple method at first glance, it can be quite rigorous and time consuming. This research method requires the researcher to be careful in terms of what is gathered within observation.Observation in research not only refers to the questions that the researcher is looking for,  it is  also related to the setting and context where the study is taking place. This flexibility makes observation an effective method as well  as a source of data collection. Many dissertations within qualitative research clearly notes how useful observation was in terms of assisting in their study, and even in scaffolding the research questions. Last but not least, effective observation requires a strong rapport with the participants studied in order to be able to become familiar with the norms and practices of the community.


Baker, L. (2006). Observation: A complex research method. Library Trends, 55(1), 171-189. doi:10.1353/lib.2006.0045

Cohen, L., Manion, L., & Morrison, K. (2000). Research methods in education. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Savage, J. (2000). Participative Observation: Standing in the Shoes of Others? Qualitative Health Research, 10(3), 324-339.

Seale, C. (2004). Qualitative research practice. London: SAGE.

Spradley, J. P. (1980). Participant observation. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Sykes, R. E. (1977). Techniques of data collection and reduction in systematic field observation. Behavior Research Methods & Instrumentation, 9(5), 407-417.