Written by Dr. Hannes Nel
I could live for ever just seeing, hearing, tasting, touching and smelling things.
Astronomers must have a wonderful time trying to figure out the universe.
As do microbiologists trying to make sense of the micro world.
They, and all the natural and social scientists between these two extremes can use observation to collect data for research.
I discuss direct, indirect, structured, semi-structured and unstructured observation in this article.
In a way, all data collection techniques involve observation of some kind. Observational research methods refer to a specific method of collecting information that is different from interviews or questionnaires. As a technique for collecting information, the observational method relies on seeing and hearing things and recording those observations, rather than relying on a subject’s self-report responses to questions or statements. You can also use your other senses to observe things.
The role of the observer is to remain detached from the group or process, and thus act as an observer only. You may, for example, wish to study the way students express their dissatisfaction with study-related issues by observing what they do and how they behave in such situations. You, as the observer, must not participate in the activities but rather just observe and record the information (an etic approach). It is, however, also possible to observe from the inside, i.e. as a member of the target group being observed (an emic approach).
Your role as an observer depends on the degree of inference or judgement that is required. At an extreme, you may make high inference observations, which require you to make judgements or inferences based on the observed behaviour.
What is recorded with high inference observation is your judgement as the observer. For example, a high inference observation of a teacher would be a rating made by the principal on factors such as classroom management, facilitation skills, enthusiasm, etc. You need to summarise the main points made or main developments at the event that you are observing. The principal would observe the class and make a rating of excellent, good, fair, or poor on each of the criteria measured.
Low inference observation, on the other hand, requires the observer to record specific behaviour without making judgements in a more global sense. Thus, the principal might record the number of rebukes or cues used by the teacher as information that is used subsequently to judge classroom management. Low inference observation usually is more reliable, but the approach that you follow will largely depend on the purpose of the research. Whatever the purpose of the research, it is important to report all observed outcomes as accurately and impartially as possible. It will mostly be necessary to present critical comment on strengths and weaknesses of the event, supported with reasons.
Observation always takes place in a specific context, with the result that different observations made at different locations and times will seldom deliver the same results. Such scenarios will mostly be one of the following five possibilities:
- Direct observation versus indirect observation.
- Structured, semi-structured and unstructured observation.
- Participant observation versus non-participant observation.
- Overt observation versus covert observation.
- Self-observation versus observation of others.
I will discuss the first two (direct observation versus indirect observation and structured, semi-structured and unstructured observation) in this article. The remaining three scenarios (participant observation versus non-participant observation; overt observation versus covert observation and self-observation versus observation of others) in the second part of the articles on observation.
Direct observation versus indirect observation.Direct observation is observation that takes place during fieldwork. As such it offers you the opportunity to gather ‘live’ data from naturally occurring situations. The use of direct observation has the potential to yield more valid and authentic data than would be the case when making use of any ‘indirect’ source of information.
Field observation is fundamental to most qualitative research – direct, eyewitness accounts of everyday social action and settings taking the form of field notes. Field observation is especially favoured by research based on ethnomethodology. Qualitative field observations are detailed descriptions of events, people, actions, and objects in settings.
Field observation is used in interactive data collection, such as participant observation and in-depth interviewing. In the former, you will rely on careful observation as you will initially explore several areas of interest at a site, selecting those to study in detail, and searching for patterns of behaviour and relationships. In the latter, you will note the nonverbal body language and facial expressions of the interviewee to help interpret the verbal data.
Indirect observation would be observation that takes place in unnatural, artificial settings. An unnatural setting would, for example, be observations in a laboratory, observation of video footage, photos, etc.
Direct observation coupled with indirect observation, for example video and audio recordings that you took, provide ‘permanent’ evidence of an event, facts, action or phenomenon. Some people would rather be observed than to complete a questionnaire or answer questions during an interview. Furthermore, the duration of observations can be measured quite accurately when it is necessary, for example when it is important to know how long an individual spoke, a crowd rioted, etc.
Video recordings of observations can also show body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, extreme (or not) reaction to a question, attack, insult, etc. You can also test your interpretation of your observations by asking others to air their views or perceptions of what you video recorded. Video recordings can be replayed as many times as you wish.
Video recordings are not without challenges. Lack of control when observing and recording a natural setting may limit the value of your observations. What happens ‘outside’ the picture can often shed a completely different meaning to the images than what you see. Measuring lengths, heights, distance and width can be difficult if you do not have known images in the footage.
Structured, semi-structured and unstructured observation. A highly structured and systematic observation is based on proper and detailed planning. It can also be pre-ordinate, meaning that you will decide in advance what kind of pictures you will be looking for. In this instance you will already have formulated your hypothesis, problem statement or problem question so that you will know what kind of data you need. Collecting information in image format systematically means that you should work according to your plan, which might include venues, time, type of images to collect, etc. Structured observation is often directed at collecting qualitative data although the collection of quantitative data is also possible.
A semi-structured observation will be based on some planning, possibly even an agenda or at least a list of the images that you need. Your modus operandi, i.e. the way in which you will seek for and collect images, might well be haphazard, hoping that you will have some luck in finding what you are looking for. In this case you might have a hypothesis, problem statement or problem question although collecting images might trigger an issue to conduct research on.
An unstructured observation would be where you do not quite know what kind of images you are looking for. In this instance you will probably work in an unsystematic manner, relying on coming across useful images by chance. You might, for example, happen to have your video camera with you when something happens that you can use in your research. In this case you might not even have decided to embark on research yet. The image or images that you come across might trigger in your mind the need for research. Therefore, you will only now formulate a hypothesis, problem statement or problem question.
All data collection techniques involve some observation.
Observation relies on what you become aware of through the senses.
As an observer you will mostly remain detached from the target for your research.
It is, however, also possible to observe an event while participating in the activity.
You can act as an observer to make high or low inference observations.
In high inference observation you will need to make judgements or inferences based on your observations.
In low inference observation you will record your observations of specific behaviour without judgement.
You must always report all observations relevant to your research as accurately and impartially as possible.
Observation always takes place in a specific context, or scenario.
Scenarios for observation can be:
1. Direct observation versus indirect observation.
2. Structured, semi-structured and unstructured observation.
3. Participant observation versus non-participant observation.
4. Overt observation versus covert observation.
5. Self-observation versus observation of others.
Direct observation is observation that takes place during fieldwork.
Indirect observation takes place in unnatural, artificial settings.
Direct observation coupled with indirect observation provide ‘permanent’ evidence of an event, facts, action or phenomenon.
Structured observation is deliberately decided on and planned.
Some planning is needed for semi-structured observation.
You might, however, identify and select images haphazardly as and when you come across them.
An unstructured observation is where you do not plan the observations.
You will observe events and phenomena that you come across by chance.
I will discuss participant observation versus non-participant observation; overt observation versus covert observation and self-observation versus observation of others in the second part of my articles on observation.
Enjoy your studies.