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

3.1.1 Participant observation and ethnography

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

3.3.1 Positivism and observation
3.3.2 Phenomenology and observation
3.3.3 Critical social research and observation

3.4 Access

3.4.1 Introduction
3.4.2 Negotiating with gatekeepers
3.4.3 Insider status
3.4.4 Continuing negotiation of access
3.4.5 The interrelationship of access negotiation and data collection

3.5 Recording data

3.5.1 Introduction
3.5.2 What data to record
3.5.3 How to record data

3.6 Analysing observational or ethnographic data

3.6.1 Introduction
3.6.2 Electronic qualitative data analysis packages

3.7 Summary

Activity 3.7.1

3.7 Summary
Observation is a major means by which sociologists collect data about the social world. Observation can be undertaken as a participant or as a non-participant; in both cases, observational research is undertaken in a systematic way. Social scientific observation is not a means of reinforcing preconceptions. Rather, observation should challenge what is taken for granted as well as providing data on previously unrecorded aspects of the social world.

Observation is demanding because it requires the researcher to make contacts and to be in a position to observe social activities. Such activities usually need to be recorded in detail, and this leads to large amounts of material being collected, with consequent problems of analysis.

The role adopted by observers, particularly participant observers, can be crucial in determining the type and extent of data that can be collected and reported. In the last resort data collection depends upon the purpose of the research. The research purpose and the extent, style and intrusiveness of the research also raise questions about issues of privacy, ethics and, ultimately, personal danger.

For positivist researchers, participant observation tends to be regarded as an unreliable and subjective method as it relies on unrepeatable research situations in which the data collection is very much reliant on the researcher's perceptions of what is significant. Thus, although used by positivists, observation tends to have a supportive role in data collection, sometimes acting as a check on quantitative forms of data or providing insights to enable the development of quantitative research instruments, such as surveys (Section 8).

Non-positivist who adopt participant observation tend to the view that the method is no different from other research situations, as they all involve a degree of subjectivity and, indeed, participant observation is more flexible and more responsive to the concepts of the research subjects than any other form of research.

It is, though, important for participant observers to be reflexive, that is, to reflect upon the impact they have had on the research setting and the extent to which their presuppositions are informing the data.

Most ethnographers argue that it is important for researchers to develop a critical attitude towards their research practices, theoretical models and presuppositions. It is impossible to begin observational research without any preconceptions but the reflexive researcher will make an effort to confront those preconceptions and see what effect they have had on the research process. Field notes should be examined to see if the preconceptions are confronted.

CASE STUDY Changing perceptions is an example of Blanche Geer's reflections.

Reflexivity also requires that researchers assess the contaminating effect of their presence and their research techniques on the nature and extent of the data collected. Crudely put, researchers must consider to what extent respondents were telling them what they wanted to hear or were acting in a manner to impress the researcher. Researchers must ask whether or not their presence inhibited respondents. Did the method of data collection, or even the format in which it was stored, restrict the kind of data being collected? Furthermore, ethnographic reflexivity requires that researchers critically reflect upon the theoretical structures they have drawn out of their ethnographic analysis. Researchers are expected to reconceptualise their evidence and explore other possible models. They are expected to think laterally.

Ethnographers should not just fit details into a preformed theoretical scheme but should try to see if alternative theoretical schemes provide the basis for a better understanding of the data. Do the observations reveal different meanings when viewed in a different way?

Although observation research is at the heart of ethnography, this does not mean that all observational research adopts the same approach. Ethnography has been undertaken from a variety of epistemological perspectives. Interactionist and functionalist approaches to ethnographic work are underpinned by positivism, while some symbolic interactionist and ethnomethodological approaches, for example, are guided by phenomenology. Critical approaches to ethnography (such as feminism and Marxism) locate the detailed analysis of social processes in a broader social context. The ethnographic material is thus used to develop the understanding of the operation of oppressive social structures (such as patriarchy, capitalism and racism).

Activity 3.7.1
Possible participant observation research projects:
1. An analysis of the sexism or racism in a factory or office.
2. The use of language in a magistrate's court.
3. A class analysis of horse-race goers.
4. A study of auction room culture and how people make sense of the auction process and their participation in it.
. The status differences on a hospital ward and the nature of the interaction between doctors and nurses.
6. An analysis of the extent to gender, class or ethnicity play a role in the activities of sports supporters.
7. An analysis of the extent to which workers in fast-food establishments see the job as meaningless and exploitative.

If you intend to use participant observation it is important that you already have access to your research area. Access can take a long time and you rarely have sufficient time in a school or college project to make new contacts as well as do the research The project ideas are suggestions that you might think about developing if you already have access to the appropriate group or organisation. You should be careful about what, where and when you choose to observe. Make sure that you discuss any potential observation study with your tutor. Do not attempt participant observation that will put you in an uncomfortable situation. It is important to consider any ethical issues that are likely arise in your potential research In general, it is advisable to avoid long-term secret participant observation, especially if you have no prior experience of undertaking participant observation.


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