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
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 3.2.4
Activity 3.2.5

3.2 Aspects

3.2.8 Summary of aspects
There are about 120 different possible combinations of these aspects of observation (Figure 3.2:1), some of which are more likely than others. William Whyte’s (1943) classic study, Street Corner Society could be described as complete participant observation, open, partial explanation, obtrusive, active, holistic and full-time. Polsky’s (1971) study of hustlers is partial participation, open, partial explanation, unobtrusive and neutral, limited issue and part-time.

Although theoretically possible, it is unlikely that there is a non-participant observation study that is secret, deceitful, obtrusive, active, holistic and full-time.

Activity 3.2.4
Identify an observation study with which you are familiar and then, using the schema in Figure 3.2:1, identify which of the different elements it adopts.

Individual activity, about 10 minutes.

Activity 3.2.5
Undertake a participant or non-participant observation study of an organisation to which you have access, such as a work-place, voluntary organisation, sports or social club. To what extent does the organisation operate in practice in a way that differs from the organisation’s more formal rules, aims and customs?

This observation activity is, once again, likely to be time-consuming.


Next 3.3 Methodological approaches