Orientation Observation In-depth interviews Document analysis and semiology Conversation and discourse analysis Secondary Data Surveys Experiments Ethics Research outcomes



Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2017

Page updated 13 January, 2017

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2017, Researching the Real World, available at
All rights belong to author.


A Guide to Methodology

3. Observation

3.1 Introduction
3.2 Aspects

3.2.1 Extent of participation (observer role)
3.2.2 Degree of openness
3.2.3 Explanation of purpose
3.2.4 Degree of obtrusiveness Introduction Unobtrusive research Obtrusive research

3.2.5 Active or passive
3.2.6 Length and frequency of observation
3.2.7 Focus of observation
3.2.8 Summary of aspects

3.3 Methodological approaches
3.4 Access
3.5 Recording data
3.6 Analysing observational or ethnographic data
3.7 Summary

Activity 3.2.2
Activity 3.2.3

3.2 Aspects

3.2.4 Degree of obtrusiveness Introduction
Whether an observer is obtrusive or unobtrusive refers to the extent to which the researcher blends into the background. This is different from being open or secret. You may be an open participant observer but you can still be unobtrusive, for example, by keeping in the background and not constantly asking questions. Similarly you could be a non-participant observer and be obtrusive, for example, by filming activity

Top Unobtrusive
Participant observers usually want to observe their subjects in their ‘natural setting’ (see Section and so, as far as possible, try to be unobtrusive and avoid contaminating the research setting. Grund et al. (1990) undertook unobtrusive participant observation in places where heroin addicts meet, use and buy drugs in their study of needle sharing amongst drug users.

Eager and Oppenheim (1996) undertook a small-scale study of academics, and observed that the research subjects found the presence of the observer rather unsettling, particularly when working at their desks for long periods, This matched the view of Wilson and Streatfield (1977) that, in meetings, the presence of the observer was less obtrusive than in periods of desk-based work.

Lee et al. (2003) claimed that their study of smoking in California bars was unobtrusive. They explained that:

Pairs of trained researchers conducted hour-long observations in a random sample of bars…. The observers entered the bar as patrons and casually interacted with staff and other patrons. They collected data using a structured observation protocol and recorded their findings in a database programmed on handheld computers, as well as provided qualitative records of their observations in the form of brief narratives…. A handheld computer…allowed the observers to rapidly log information for each bar on the type and general characteristics, interior and exterior condition, size, seating, ambiance, basic demographic information on staff and patrons, tobacco products sold or visible, and incidences of smoking inside the bar, as well as circumstantial evidence of smoking inside the bar….The narrative form was a written document designed to capture qualitative data from the observations. Observers recorded a brief description of the bar layout, environment, staff, and patrons. They concisely described patron-staff interactions, any smoking-related behaviors they observed, and gave a general summary of the observation. Observers were encouraged to include their subjective impressions, substantiated by concrete details, and to compare observations of the same bar at different time periods or days of the week if they made repeat visits.

The aim was to be discrete, even when using the technology, nonetheless, it seems that this amount of on-site recording would hardly have escaped notice, especially in small bars, even if the patrons did not know the purpose. In Figure 3.2:1 this research would be characterised as (from left to right), partial participant, secret, no explanation, obtrusive, passive, repeat single focus research.

Activity 3.2.2
Would you say that Anne Campbell (see Campbell Case Study) conducted her study of New York gang girls in an obtrusive manner? If so, in what ways?

This activity involves reflective reading.
As a class activity this would take about 15 minutes in small groups with a short feedback session to share some perceptions.
As an individual activity this would take 10 minutes to jot down some thoughts.

Unobtrusive research is also used to refer to ‘unobtrusive measures’, which refers to indirect collection of data.

Top Obtrusive
Being obvious about recording data can affect the research situation. If, for example, you are seen writing notes every time someone does something or you constantly produce a tape-recorder every time a conversation starts up, or are seen to be constantly mumbling into an electronic memo machine, then your subjects are likely to stop acting naturally and possibly start to avoid you.

However, not all observation research is unobtrusive. Phillip Elliott (1972) openly recorded notes in his television study because he did not trust his memory and to give him something to do despite some initial suspicion among the programme producers he was observing. Similarly, Yiannis Gabriel (1988) comments that he kept copious notes of the informal chats he had with people as they went about their work in the catering industry. These were made overtly and he recalls that he was often teased: ‘Dear me, what I wouldn’t give to know what goes on in those blue books of yours’, and ‘Just make sure you don’t leave those blue books with all that’s in them lying around. I wouldn’t like them to know what I’m telling you’.

Obtrusive recording of data was turned to good use by Mike Filby (1989) in his study of betting shop staff.

I periodically wrote short notes in a field notebook, having explained the purpose of this. This became something of a motif. In the first shop I had the unintentional habit of forgetting where I had left it prompting ritual searches and cries of ‘don’t forget your notebook’. Occasionally I was asked what I was writing down but these staff never attempted to read it. The female staff in the second shop conversely needed only half an opportunity, and in consequence I tended to keep a firmer hold. Here, however, a standard call became, ‘write this down Mike’ or ‘don’t write this down Mike!’. At first I was irrationally proprietorial about my notes and on one occasion snapped at one of the workers who looked at them. We both expressed some guilt, apologised and so on. The next day I brought in some typed-up notes and shared them with this and other female staff. While assuaging some of my guilt it also provided further material as we discussed some of the ideas I was developing. Towards the end of the stint another staff member decided she would write some notes on me, which, with encouragement, she completed and handed over. There were some important lessons about sharing and about subjects as theorists to be learned from these incidents.

Filby, in effect, used the research subjects to substantiate his research notes. Kelly (2003, p. 37), in her research on Bosnian refugees, also made use of the research subjects in this way:

I attended two meetings at which representatives of most Bosnian associations were present and, in informal discussions with these leaders afterwards, I discussed my interim findings on the associations. These discussions led me to conclude that my findings regarding the Bosnian associations are generally applicable.

Activity 3.2.3
Review the observation activities you have undertaken so far and assess the extent to which you have been obtrusive or unobtrusive in the way you recorded the data. Do you think that your data recording practices had any effect on the people you were observing? If so, how did it affect them?

This activity depends on having undertaken and recorded some observations. The review and reflection would take about half an hour on average.


Next 3.2.5 Active or passive