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  4. Overview of Research Methods
  5. Observation


What is it?

Observational research is a way of collecting information by observing naturally occurring events, situations, settings, behaviors, decision-making and other social phenomena as they occur. Observational research is an effective method to get a rich description and an insight of this, through different types of techniques. These vary, among other things, in terms of the role and control that the researcher has over the observed event and the extent to which the observation is structured or unstructured.



When to use it?

Observational research is particularly suited to:

  • Explore and/or identify concepts, factors and interactive practices and behaviours that are not well understood. The open and real-life quality of observations makes it ideal for the early phases of research when the main goal is to develop a set of variables and establish possible relationships between them rather than investigating variables that are already established.
  • Obtain a rich description of events as they naturally occur. Observation gives the opportunity to see the different factors that can influence behaviour, such as the setting where the behaviour takes place and the interactions between participants.
  • Explore and identify causal and interactive links between and among variables. By observing and describing the context in which the behaviour takes place gives the possibility to look at the dynamic relationship between context and behaviour.
  • Study complex, interactive and dynamic social processes that require actual physical presence in the field (e.g., institutional practices, group dynamics).
  • Study behaviour or situations in which participants would be unable to report with accuracy, such as non-verbal behaviour which often takes place outside conscious awareness or situations where there is a high level of emotion. For example, many studies have found that although food safety works claim using common food safety practices frequently in self-reports, through observation it was found that this practices are less frequent than what was reported by them.




The use of observational research provides a number of advantages relative to other types of research, namely:

  • Opportunity to study events and behaviours within their natural context and as they unfold.
  • High ecological validity. The behaviour is studied in a natural setting and context.
  • Opportunity to uncover new behaviours. Behaviour in natural surroundings is more diverse. Observational research may thus reveal behaviours not previously reported in a specific context.
  • Opportunity to study complex non-verbal behaviour and decision-making, such as food safety practices.
  • Observational research is usually cost-effective in terms of money and equipment.
  • When information is collected in a structured, standardized way, it is possible to compare between different individuals.



Disadvantages and limitations

Observational research has some disadvantages and limitations relative to other types of research, namely:

  • Given their open and real-life quality, these studies are usually difficult to replicate and thus it may be hard to check the reliability and validity of the findings.
  • More difficult to control possible factors that can affect behaviour.
  • The observer can influence and bias the data collection and analysis. However, some steps can be taken to minimize this (see the planning section).
  • Although possible causal mechanisms may be studied and identified, it may not be possible to draw clear conclusions about cause-and-effect relationships, given the difficulty of controlling other factors that may influence the causal relationship.
  • Data collection and analysis are usually very time-consuming.
  • If participants realize that they are being watched they may be reactive, i.e. not behave naturally due to this awareness.
  • Ethical issues arise if the participants are being observed but have not given their consent to participate in the study.



Methods selection decision aid

Take this short quiz to learn what are the best 3 methods to understand your audience and answer your research question(s).