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 2012–2020

Page updated 29 April, 2020

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2020, 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

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

Figure 3.2:1: Observation roles

3.2 Aspects
The kind of role played by the observer within a group is of crucial importance. The role played will affect the type of observations the researcher is able to make and the sort of interpretations that follow. The purpose of the research will, conversely, affect the role adopted, the scope of the study and the integration of other techniques.

When undertaking observation the researcher must decide on an overall strategy. There are a variety of aspects that observation research needs to take into account, including the:

1. extent of participation: non-participant, associate, partial participant, complete participant—also known as the observer role;

2. degree of openness: secret (covert), partially open, fully open (overt);

3. amount of explanation provided to the research subjects: no-explanation, deceit, partial explanation, full explanation;

4. degree of obtrusiveness of the researcher: unobtrusive, obtrusive;

5. degree of active participation: passive (neutral), active (influential);

6. focus: single focus, multiple focus, holistic;

7. length and frequency of observation: single event, repeat single, multiple, full-time.

These alternatives are mapped out in Figure 3.2:1.

The following sections explore these in more detail with examples. As was noted in Section 1, social research raises ethical issues and observation research, particularly participant observation research, tends to amplify the issues (discussed in Section 10).



Next 3.2.1 Extent of participation (observer role)