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 of aspects

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

3.2 Aspects

3.2.6 Length and frequency of observation
Observation research varies enormously in its intensity and duration. Margaret Mead (1928), for example, as an anthropologist, went to live in another culture for many months living with the villagers day and night. For his book Cop in the Hood, Peter Moskos (2008) joined the Baltimore Police for twenty months, the first six of which were at the training academy.

If, on the other hand, you observe football hooligans, observation may be limited to several hours on match days. In his year-long study of the dance music scene, Andy Bennett (1999, p. 608) dipped in and out of the research setting:

My research methodology was qualitative in nature and incorporated participant observation, semi-structured 'one-to-one interviews' and focus groups (group discussions on set themes). In total, I interviewed around forty dance-music enthusiasts in Newcastle, ranging in age from 18 to 30, and attended sixteen dance-music nights in city centre clubs and eleven house party events.

Observation of how students respond to a new teaching technique may require observation of a just a couple of classroom events. One particularly small-scale example reported in Sociology is Heidi Mirza and Diane Reay's (2000) exploration of Black Supplementary Schools, which involved 'sixteen qualitative interviews and three days of participant observation'. Mariana Valverde and Kimberley White-Mair (1999) participated in 15 open meetings as part of their study of Alcoholics Anonymous. Such micro-studies would hardly have constituted a pilot study at the Chicago School in the inter-war years, let alone get published.

So observation may range from single events (for example, crowd behaviour at a cup final) through repeated observations of specific settings (football crowd throughout the season) to repeated observations of a range of settings (a football hooligan 'firm' travelling to games, meeting in pubs as well as in the stadia), to complete immersion and full-time observation (becoming closely associated with a football hooligan firm and observing activities of members throughout the week).


Next 3.2.7 Focus