Observational Studies


What are Observational studies?

Observational studies involve the systematic detailed observation of behaviour and talk, i.e. watching and recording what people say and do. They are sometimes referred to as field research. The exact methods are difficult to specify. They can include interviews, checklists, questionnaires and unobtrusive methods. By unobtrusive methods, I mean the observation of people in their natural setting and the avoidance of being obvious about observing them as this can affect the situation and thereby the data being collected. Essentially, observational studies centre on the direct observations of the researcher. The researcher immerses him/herself into the subject being studied to gain understanding of that subject. The aim is to see the world from the point of view of the subject(s) being studied rather than imposing the researcher's own views. The researcher instead wants to understand what social processes and actions mean to the people involved in them and develop theoretical statements about them. Observational studies are part of qualitative research and are theory building (i.e. the aim is to draw out the general themes) and follow a phenomenological approach (i.e. the participant observer seeks out the meaning of the experiences of the group being studied from each of the many different perspectives within it). Observational studies can be done as a piece of descriptive research in its own right, as an exploratory method for quantitative research or can be used in triangulation to validate a piece of other qualitative research. (In triangulation, it provides an alternative view that can be compared with data gathered in other ways). They are also used as part of ethnography (i.e. detailed studies of small groups of people with a complex society) alongside in-depth interviews, life histories and personal document analysis.

Field research is mostly used by anthropologists but sociologists and political scientists often use it to uncover meanings behind the cultural practices, belief systems, social customs and taboos of a social group. The Chicago School of Sociological Thought (1930s - 1960s) advocated field research and it contributed massively to the development of theories on social deviance. Graduate students from ethnic minorities were also encouraged to observe their own communities, which has been of enormous value to disciplines like public health. An example of how field research in medical anthropology can be of use to public health is Edward C Green's Indigenous Theories of Contagious Disease (Alta Mira Press, 1999). Green compiled ethnographic work including observational studies done in different parts of Africa to illustrate how people explain health and disease and how they devise cultural mechanisms to cure illness. Field research has also been used in medical sociology, for example observing the interactions of staff and patients in an intensive labour unit or how elderly people use the ER waiting room to make social connections. Field research is time consuming. Most research is about a year, though some are a few days. It takes a lot of planning and is hard work. Some researchers spend years preparing, learning a new language or learning the intricacies of a culture so that they can blend in. It is not common to find journal articles on observational studies, most are published as books.

Three kinds of observers

Complete participant/participant observer

A complete participant is like an undercover detective. S/he completely submerse him/herself into the environment. The researcher becomes part of the group or situation that is being studied, for example, becoming a barman in a licensed club or joining a street gang. They do not just observe and record the behaviour, they join in on the everyday activities of the group. As a member, the researcher observes social interaction and talks informally with group members. Thus participant observation is usually taken to refer to more than just the process of observing. It may also include use of interviews and analysis of documents (e.g. personal documents, emails, organisational memos). Participant observation is generally about the researcher acquiring knowledge of social phenomena from the point of view of the subjects. The kind of role played by a participant observer within a group is of crucial importance as the role will affect the sort of observations the researcher is able to make. 

Possible roles for a researcher include: 

  1. A complete participant, i.e. living in and fully occupied in the activities of the observed group; 
  2. A participant observer can also be partial, i.e. they may observe in one setting, e.g. hustlers in pool halls; 
  3. They may be an associate member, which is used when for physical reasons, the researcher can't be a direct member of the group, e.g. adults observing teenage juveniles. Observation can be open or secret. Open observation involves revealing that the group is being observed. This can reduce stress as a secret observer runs the risk of being discovered and this can terminate a research project prematurely. Secret observation is usually preferred as it reduces the impact of the researcher on the group.

Observing participant

The observing participant is usually visible to the group, i.e. they would have revealed their purpose. They would however join in on activities.

Non-participant (complete) observer

Non-participant observation involves the researcher getting into situations where behaviour, interactions, organisational practices can be observed first hand. A complete observer is usually visible to the group. An example would be someone sitting in a classroom observing lessons or watching interactions between health care professionals and patients in a clinic. Observation through one way mirrors may also fall into this category. A complete observer would not join in on the activities of the group.

Advantages of Observational Studies

  1. It is simple and inexpensive.
  2. You get first-hand information.
  3. You gain a deeper understanding of processes that surveys cannot obtain.

Disadvantages of Observational Studies

  1. There are possible observer effects which may bias the findings. For example, a complete participant observer may uncritically develop the point of view of the subject group or s/he may not be able to rid themselves of previous prejudices.
  2. There are problems of ethics.
  3. There is a reliance on subjective measurement.

Overcoming the Objective Issue

  1. The observer must be receptive, insightful and have self-understanding.
  2. The observer must be aware of his/her potential bias. You must make clear your initial expectations at the outset and guard against these on your observations.
  3. Inter-subjective understanding and empathy must be emphasized. This is done by being aware of time and timings, the physical environment, contrasting experience (i.e. people's experiences under contrasting social circumstances, meanings are relative to settings) and of social openings and barriers.

Things to Consider when Planning Field Research

General Subject

Field researchers usually have a general or specific subject in mind when entering the field. This serves as a guide to what you look for in a setting. Field studies do evolve over the course of the field research but you will still enter with an understanding of what you would like to discover.


Before any recording and analysis, you must choose the setting that you will observe. The idea is not to generalize to the whole population but to indicate common links, demonstrate features or provide categories shared between the setting observed and others like it. Sampling is theoretical, i.e. it is guided by researcher's developing theory. Times, situations, type of events, locations, types of people and contexts of interest are all sampled. Settings have various qualities that need to be considered, for example, is it private or public? Do the people in the setting vary or are they permanent? What are the objects in the setting and what do they tell you about the people?


You should decide upon your time frame at the onset. This will depend upon the nature of your study. You should also consider the order of your visits. Will they be sequential (i.e. have a regular order) or non-sequential? Non-sequential visits are usually used in longer periods of time but may be timed to coincide with special events, e.g. Christmas.

What to Observe?

You need to plan in advance what aspects you are going to observe. Will this include the environment, people and their relationships, behaviour, actions and activities? Will it included verbal behaviour, psychological stances (body language), histories or physical objects? Histories/stories and physical objects have meanings for people and can reveal a lot about them.

Fieldwork Preparation

Firstly, you'll need to get information from your internal sources. This will include gaining access, locating gatekeepers and advice from informants. You will need a strategy for entering the site and for building rapport. Then you should compile information from external sources such as field studies from similar fields, studies of people similar to those you plan to observe, studies using methods that you plan to use and general information that can give you a greater knowledge about what you are studying.


It is impossible to record everything and so this process relies heavily on the researcher to act as the research instrument and document the world s/he observes. Recordings are done through field notes taken either during or immediately after the events occur. This requires a good memory and frequent 'toilet trips' to write up! When you write will depend upon where you are but you should always write up within 24 hours of an event. You can use tape or video recorders, just make sure that they are not obvious as this will make your work obtrusive. How much you record depends upon what you are trying to find out. For example, if you are observing three people and a fourth person joins, do you say a fourth person joins or do you say a 6 foot tall man in a red jacket etc? It is preferable to include as much details as possible. Try to cover all aspects - why did something happen? What was X trying to accomplish? Who was there? What were the details of the physical scene? What verbatim comments were made? When recording your field notes, put headings on notes to say when, where and between what times the observations were made. Keep names anonymous. You can code them and keep them separately or if you don't know or what to use names, just use codes. Sometimes people theme their observations as they go along.


Gathered field notes are usually detailed and highly descriptive. They include descriptions, recalled information, interpretations and personal impressions. In long field research, they take the form of diaries, jottings, notes and logs. The researcher must shift through the notes to make sense of the situation, events and interactions observed. The notes are then organized into themes or taxonomies (classifications). The researcher then looks for repeated patterns and deviant cases. 

The steps taken generally comprise of the following:

  1. Compile the data
  2. Read the text chronologically
  3. Read the text to identify recurring themes
  4. Divide each day's field notes into sections that deal with particular themes
  5. Reorganise the whole set of notes under the themes
  6. Identify sub-themes and remove or collapse themes until more useful themes emerge
  7. Review the themes and organise the report around the final identified themes

Tips on Conducting Field Research

  • Select a site that is easy to access.
  • Be prepared! Plan well in advance.
  • Have written documentation about yourself.
  • Don't forget about ethics! There may be quite a few hoops to jump through so do your homework.
  • Don't become a spy!
  • Get to know the physical and social layout before you start.

A quick note on Structural Observation

Often called systematic observation, structural observation is a technique in which the researcher employs explicitly formulated rules for the observation and recording of behaviour. These rules have to be followed and they tell the observers what they should look for and how they should record behaviour. (In this sense, it is similar to structured interviews used in survey research, i.e. quantitative research). The rules are called an observation schedule and this is similar to the structured interview schedule with closed questions. The aim of the observation schedule is to ensure that each participant's behaviour is systematically recorded so that it is possible to aggregate the behaviour of all those in the sample in respect of each type of behaviour being recorded. The schedule is specific so that there is uniformity in the data collected. The resulting data is similar to that of questionnaire data. Since it is quantitative, decisions have to be made in advance in regard to sampling. It can be 'ad libitum' (the observer records whatever is happening at the time), 'focal sampling' (a specific individual is observed for a set period of time), 'scan sampling' (an entire group of individuals is scanned at regular intervals and the behaviour of all of them is recorded at that time) and 'behaviour sampling' (an entire group is watched and the observer records who was involved in a particular kind of behaviour). Reliability is checked by Cohen's Kappa (degree of agreement over the coding of items by two people).

Further Reading

Baker, T.L. Doing Social Resarch. McGraw Hill, 1999. (Chapter 9)

Berg, B.L. Qualitative Research Methods for the Social Sciences. 4th Edition. Ally & Bacon, 2001.

Bernard, R. Social Research Methods - Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches. Sage, 2000. (Chapters 7 & 9)

Bowling, A. Research Methods in Health, 2nd Edition. Open University Press, 2002.

Richardson, J.T.E. (Ed). Handbook of Qualitative Research Methods for Psychology and the Social Sciences. BPS Books, 1996.

Bryman, A. Social Research Methods. Oxford University Press, 2001.

Gilbert, N. Researching Social Life. Sage, 2001.

Leedy, P.D. Practical Research: Planning and Design. Prentice Hall, 1997.

Neuman, W.L. Social Research Methods: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches. Allyn & Bacon, 1997.

Seale, C. Researching Society and Culture. Sage, 2001.

Spradley, J.P. The Ethnographic Interview. Holt, Reinhart & Winston, 1979.

Strauss, A.L. Qualitative Analysis for Social Scientists. Cambridge University Press, 1987.

The journal Qualitative Inquiry contains examples of field research.