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 2012–2019

Page updated 22 November, 2019

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2019, Researching the Real World, available at
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A Guide to Methodology

3. Observation

3.1 Introduction
3.2 Aspects
3.3 Methodological approaches
3.4 Access
3.5 Recording data

3.5.1 Introduction
3.5.2 What data to record
3.5.3 How to record data Memorising events Mechanical and electronic recording

3.5.4 Writing up your observations

3.6 Analysing observational or ethnographic data
3.7 Summary

3.5 Recording data

3.5.3 How to record data
Beside the problem of what to record, the observer is faced with the problem of how to record information. Do you write down observations as they occur? Do you remember what happens and write it down later? Or do you make notes during the observation as aids to memory and then write a full version later? Again, the answer is not straightforward and depends on the circumstances and your skill as an observer.

If the subjects are aware of your presence then you may have to consider whether you should be seen writing down what is going on or even be seen making occasional notes. But it may be that, as an observer, you are in a position where it is quite feasible to record events as they occur: for example, you may be observing what goes on in a school classroom or college lecture where everyone else is writing and so it would not be seen as odd for you to do so.

Whyte ([1943] 1955) took on the role of secretary of the Italian Community Club as it enabled him to make observation notes during meetings. On the other hand, if you are observing social interaction in a youth club you are likely to be the only person sitting watching and writing, and people are likely to ask what you are doing. If you tell them it may well affect their behaviour, albeit often in minor ways, as we saw above in Filby's (1989) betting shop research (Section

In her study of a high-crime area in America, Talja Blokland (2008, pp. 603–4) explained that:

During participant observations, I sometimes took notes overtly, sometimes taped casual conversations, and sometimes wrote full fieldnotes from memory that same day. Rough notes and taped conversations, as well as in-depth interviews, were transcribed later. Most material has subsequently been coded for dimensions of trust, violence and risk.

Top Memorising events 
In some situations you may not be able to write down what is going on, or even make notes. Your subjects may not know you are a researcher because you are hiding the fact from them. In which case you cannot be seen to be making notes about what you are observing because it will give the game away. Even if they know that you are a researcher they may object to you making notes about what they are doing.

Usually, (as you have probably already found out when doing Activity 3.1), you are not able to record everything that happens as it occurs, or even to make quick notes about everything. Too many things happen at once, or events happen too quickly at times for you to be able to record it all as it occurs. Much more likely, you will need to remember what happens and with the help of what notes you are able to make at the time, write it down later when you are alone.

Thus you have to develop your memory skills. This means that you have to learn to concentrate on what is going on in detail, in particular the sequence of events. Often, you are able to remember specific events but getting them in the right order is more difficult. Cooper et al. (2004), in their study of the elderly, noted that it was agreed:

no notes would be made at a client's home. Contact sessions with clients often run in sequence, and in practice this means constructing field notes several hours after being in the field. A strategy for remembering details was developed whereby each session was recalled using visual cues such as the actors, particular event(s), the physical context, and other props including mealtimes, taking a client to the bathroom, or putting them to bed and in some circumstances, the time of day facilitated recall of events. Field notes were structured around the guidelines provided by Spradley (1980).... These include the spatial and temporal aspects; the goals, feelings, and activities of the actors; and the physical objects that are present in the situation.

With luck and skill you might be able to make brief notes as an aide mémoire as you observe. There may be no problem making notes openly but often you will want to avoid drawing attention to what you are doing (irrespective of whether the subjects know you are a researcher or not). Making quick notes in a pocket-sized book whilst alone (for example, whilst in the toilet), or scribbling on the back of matchboxes or bus tickets, can be invaluable aids in recalling specific details later. You might develop other tricks; for example, some researchers have reputedly learned to write notes secretly in a book in their pocket!

Top Mechanical and electronic recording  
Some observation studies have recorded events and interactions using video recording devices and this is becoming increasingly common as devices are less obtrusive, less expensive and easier to use. According to Speer and Hutchby (2003a), visual recording for social research was pioneered back in the mid-20th Century (Bateson, 1956; Bateson and Mead, 1942; Birdwhistell, 1952) and mechanical recording of conversations has been strongly advocated by conversational analysts since the mid-1960s. Sacks (1984, p. 26), for example, noted that tape-recorded conversations had the advantage that:

I could replay them. I could transcribe them somewhat and study them extendedly—however long it might take. The tape-recorded materials constituted a 'good enough' record of what had happened. Other things, to be sure, happened, but at least what was on the tape had happened.

In general, ethnographers admit that mechanical recording has some direct advantages over making field notes. They allow, at least to some extent, direct capture of social processes rather than a filtering of experience inevitable when one makes notes in situ. This is particularly useful, as we shall see in Section 4, when undertaking in-depth interviews.

Miriam Saville-Troike (2003, p. 98) suggested that:

ethnographers should always remember that the acceptability of taping, photographing, and even note-taking depends on the community and situations being observed. When filming or videotaping is feasible in a relatively fixed context, it is best to use a stationary wide-angle studio camera for "contextual" footage as well as a mobile camera to focus on particular aspects of the situation. To obtain a visual record of interactional events in which participants are more mobile (such as children playing together...) a hand-held and battery-operated video camera is most suitable. In such situations a small radio microphone may be attached to a single focal participant, with a receiver on the camera which records the sound directly on film...

Latvala et al., 2000, used videotape recording in participant observation of psychiatric nurses. The videotaped episodes, although recording part of the daily life of psychiatric nursing, were restricted to report sessions and interdisciplinary team meetings. In all, there were 21 videotaped sessions, which were transcribed verbatim. The authors argue that using videotape has the advantage of allowing the researcher to repeatedly review the videotaped situations, which they claim reduces personal influence of the researcher. Furthermore the data are rich in detail and allows for several analytical possibilities. However, there are limitations notably mechanical problems and the influence of videotaping on behaviour. In addition, ethical considerations, including personal privacy, informed consent and respect for the self-determination of psychiatric patients, have to be handled carefully (see Section 10).

However, Speer and Hutchby (2003a) argued that the use of mechanical recording devices is usually seen by researchers as potentially having a detrimental effect on the 'authenticity' or 'naturalness' of the data collected. The view is that if participants' are aware of the presence of recording in recording device they will behave differently: often it is assumed this leads to participants exhibiting reticence and not being open.

Researchers working within both positivist and interpretive paradigms worry about the influence and effects of the researcher and their research instruments on those being investigated. 'Researcher effects', 'reactivity' or 'reactive effects' (Bryman, 1988: 112; Hammersley, 1992: 164; Hammersley and Atkinson, 1995: 130), 'interviewer effects' (Fielding, 1993: 145; Fowler and Mangione, 1990: 46; Judd et al., 1991: 259), 'context effects' (Foddy, 1993: 52ff.) and 'observer effects' (Robson, 1993: 208–9) are just some of the terms used to describe the 'unintended' influence of the research technology and/or the researcher on the results of a study (Maykut and Moorhouse, 1994: 155). Judd et al. (1991: 304–5) point out that participant observers tend not to record conversations on tape because the recording device would 'inhibit the researcher's participation in many situations'. It may limit rapport and possibly 'interfere with participant observation'. Tape recording may also 'make respondents anxious' (Blaxter et al., 1996: 154). Hammersley and Atkinson (1983: 158) suggest that even where consent has been gained, 'awareness that proceedings are being recorded may significantly affect what occurs'. Stubbs (1983: 224) argues that ordinary speakers' language changes to a 'more formal' style when they know they are being observed. Have (1998: 61) makes a related point, noting that 'even if people do consent to being recorded, they quite often offer nervously hilarious comments on possible exposures'. (Speer and Hutchby, 2003a, p. 316)

Speer and Hutchby (2003a, p. 315) suggested that instead of assuming that recording 'will act as a constraint on the production of 'natural' talk' they argue that recording devices might also provide a positive spur to interaction. They argue that apart from totally covet observation, there will always be the possibility of some degree of 'contamination' of a research setting by the researcher. Drawing on three different studies using recording devices Speer and Hutchby argue that this issue is not whether recorded interactions are natural or not but that the interaction itself should be seen in its own terms: as 'natural interaction involving a tape recorder'. They demonstrate that the non-covert recording is something that is negotiated and made sense of by the respondents. The ethical issues are in the open and the participants play a role in resolving them. Furthermore, the recording device can actually be used, they show, to develop or encourage dialogue.

Hammersley's (2003) response to this is to (i) argue that qualitative researchers are not overly concerned about naturalistic settings and the possible reactivity of mechanical devices and (ii) to infer that Speer and Hutchby are arguing for the exclusive adoption of a conversational analysis approach.

Whether or not Speer and Hutchby are proposing the pre-eminence of conversational analysis, or whether naturalism is as major concern of observational/qualitative researchers, the issue here is that when using mechanical devices, the researcher needs to be aware of the impact of mechanical recording on the research subjects. As Campbell (1984, p. 3) noted:

More often, girls talked freely about incriminating matters if, upon request, I did not use the tape recorder.

Next 3.5.4 Writing up your observations