Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.


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core definition

Observation is the process of using ones senses to gather information about the world.

explanatory context

Observation implies the use of the sense of sight but in social research all senses are used in the catch-all notion of 'observation'.


Observation is an intepretive process, it is more than the gathering of disconnected data. Observation involves trying to make sense of the things observed (connecting them to things already known) .


Observation is also used in the sense of compliance rather than merely awareness: for example, observing laws, rituals or customs means that note is taken of them and any requirements are complied with.


Observational methods vary. They are descibed by dichotomies, such as participant observation versus non-participant observation; structured versus unstructured; 'quantitative versus qualitative'. These dcihotomies are not helpful and create an artifical lassification tht is not helpful in practice where observation requires flexibility to match the setting and intentions of the research.

analytical review

Hannan (2006) wrote:

1) Observational techniques are an important aspect of many action research studies and of case studies whether undertaken by participants or outsiders.

2) In a way all of us are already well practised in the arts of observation—we all need to observe human behaviour in our personal and professional lives, we are all familiar with the need to come to conclusions based on our observation, to generate explanations and understandings and even to come up with predictions.

3) It is important that we attempt to build on those skills that we already possess and to exploit those aspects of common sense that are of benefit.

4) However, in research we need to go beyond the subjective and impressionistic, we need to be aware of and, if possible, eliminate bias, we need to be systematic and open about our procedures so as to open them up for public scrutiny so that others may check the bases on which we reach conclusions.

Punch (2009) discussed so-called 'quantitative' and 'qualitative' observation:

In the literature on observation as a data collection technique, the terms 'quantitative' and 'qualitative' are frequently used. The terms 'structured' and 'unstructured' are more appropriate in this book, because observational data can be highly structured without necessarily being turned into numbers. The issue is not whether the observational data will be turned into numbers, but rather how much structure the observations will involve.
Quantitative approaches tend to be highly structured, and to require predeveloped observation schedules, usually very detailed. If this approach is chosen, decisions will be required from the researcher as to whether already existing observational schedules will be used, or whether an ohservation schedule will be specially developed.... Qualitative approaches to observation are much more unstructured. In this case, the researcher does not use predetermined categories and classifications, but makes observations in a more natural open-ended way. Whatever the recording technique, the behaviour is observed as the stream of actions and events as they naturally unfold. The logic here is that categories and concepts for describing and analysing the observational data will emerge later in the, research, during the analysis, rather than be brought to the research, or imposed on the data, from the start.

When the observational strategy is unstructured, the process of observation typically evolves through a series of different activities. It begins with selectinga setting and gaining access to it, then starting the observing and recording. As the study progresses, the nature of the observation changes, typically sharpening in focus, leading to ever clearer research questions which require more selected observations. The observational data gathering continues until theoretical saturation is reached (Adler and Adler, 1994). Silverman (1993) suggests five stages in organizing an initially unstructured observational study: beginning the research (where a set of very general questions is proposed), writing field notes (usually beginning with broad descriptive categories, but later developing more focused codes and categories), looking as well as listening, testing hypotheses and making broader links.

University of Strathclyde (undated a and b) explores observation as a technique:

Observation is a fundamental way of finding out about the world around us. As human beings, we are very well equipped to pick up detailed information about our environment through our senses. However, as a method of data collection for research purposes, observation is more than just looking or listening. Research, simply defined, is “systematic enquiry made public” (Stenhouse, 1975). Firstly, in order to become systematic, observation must in some way be selective. We are constantly bombarded by huge amounts of sensory information. Human beings are good at selectively attending to what is perceived as most useful to us. Observation harnesses this ability; systematic observation entails careful planning of what we want to observe. Secondly, in order to make observation ‘public’, what we see or hear has to be recorded in some way to allow the information to be analysed and interpreted. (University of Strathclyde, undated a)

The main strength of observation is that it provides direct access to the social phenomena under consideration. Instead of relying on some kind of self-report, such as asking people what they would do in a certain situation, you actually observe and record their behaviour in that situation. This, in principle at least, avoids the wide range of problems associated with self-report. In an interview situation or in response to a questionnaire item, for example, a person may not always provide accurate or complete information, or they might answer in ways that correspond to what is socially desirable. There is a recognised source of bias in self-report techniques referred to as a 'social desirability set', which means that in many spheres of social life there are socially desirable ways of behaving and, consciously or unconsciously, individuals will tend to respond in that way, although in the 'real world' they might behave differently. ...

One of the main disadvantages of observation is that it can be very time consuming and resource intensive. Observation may be a very desirable strategy to explore certain research questions, but it may simply not be feasible for the researcher with limited time and resources to carry out the observation and, therefore, alternative strategies would have to be pursued.... A fundamental potential weakness of all observation is that it is susceptible to observer bias—subjective bias on the part of the observer—thus undermining the reliability and hence the validity of the data gathered. This can be because the observer records not what actually happened, but what they either wanted to see, expected to see, or merely thought they saw.....Another potential weakness of observation is the so-called observer effect, which refers to the way in which the presence of an observer in some way influences the behaviour of those being observed. In order to avoid or minimise this, methods of observation sometimes attempt to be as unobtrusive as possible. (University of Strathclyde, undated b)

associated issues


related areas

See also



non-participant observation

participant observation

Researching the Real World Section 1.4.3

Researching the Real World Section 3 for detailed analysis of observation as a research method


Adler, P.A. and Adler, P., 1994, 'Observation techniques', Denzin. N.K and Lincoln, Y.S. (Eds.), Handbook of Qualitative Research, pp.37792, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Hannan, A., 2006, 'Observation techniques', available at, accessed 17 March 2013, page not available 24 December 2016.

Stenhouse, L., 1975, 'An introduction to curriculum research and development', London, Heinemann.

Silverman, D., 1993, Interpreting Qualitative Data. Methods for Analysing Talk, Text and Interaction, London, Sage Publications.

University of Strathclyde, undated a, 'What is observation?', available at, accessed 17 March 2013, page not available 24 December 2016.

University of Strathclyde, undated b, 'Advantages and disadvantages of observation', available at, accessed 17 March 2013, page not available 24 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2017

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