Observation Method of Data Collection: Advantages, Disadvantages, Techniques, Types

Observation Method of Data CollectionObservation is a technique that involves systematically selecting, watching, listening, reading, touching, and recording behavior and characteristics of living beings, objects, or phenomena.

The researchers, adopting this method, attempt to understand behavior and societies by getting to know the persons involved and their values, rituals, symbols, beliefs, and emotions.

The technique qualifies as a scientific method of data collection when it is specially designed to answer a research question and is systematically planned and executed with proper controls.

The versatility of the method makes it an indispensable primary source of data and a supplement to other methods.

Advantages of the Observation Method


The main advantage of observation is its directness. We can collect data at the time they occur. The observer does not have to ask people about their behavior and reports from others.

He or she can simply watch as individuals act and speak. While the survey respondents may have a hazy or lapse memory about events that occurred in the distant past, the observer is studying events as they occur.

Natural environment

Whereas other data collection techniques introduce artificiality into the research environment, data collected in an observation study describe the observed phenomena as they occur in their natural settings.

Observation is neither as restrictive nor as artificial as either the survey or the experiment.

Longitudinal analysis

Since the observation is possible to be conducted in a natural setting, the observer can conduct his or her study over a much longer period than with either the survey or experiment.

Non-verbal behavior

Observation is decidedly superior to survey research, experimentation, or document study for collecting data on non­verbal behavior. Some studies focus on individuals who are unable to give verbal reports or to articulate themselves meaningfully.

For these subjects, the observational method is indispensable. These include children, crippled, and mentally and physically handicraft people.

Disadvantages of the Observation Method

Lack of control

Despite the advantage as achieved from the natural environment, the observation study, however, has little control over extraneous variables that may affect the data.

The presence of a stranger (the observer) and the error involved in human observation and the recording of data, which may remain out of control of the observer, are likely to bias the observations to a great extent.

Difficulties in quantification

Measurement in observational studies generally takes the form of observer’s un-quantified perceptions rather than the quantitative measures often used in the survey and experimental studies.

Smallness in sample size

Because observational studies are generally conducted in-depth, with data that are often subjective and difficult to quantify, the sample size is usually kept at a minimum.

Also, the in-depth nature of the observation studies generally requires that they are conducted over an extended period, then the survey method or experiments. This feature tends to limit the size of the sample.

No opportunity to learn past

In an observational study, there is no way to know the past. It is also difficult to gather information on such topics as intentions, opinions, attitudes, or preferences.

This technique can generate either quantitative or qualitative data but tends to be used more for small-scale exploratory studies than for large-scale quantitative studies. This is because it usually requires

  • Relatively highly skilled observers and analysts
  • Prolonged periods of observation
  • High cost per unit of observation.

Techniques of Observation

This technique lends itself particularly well to the observation of community responses to program efforts.

It is the chief method of ethnographers, who specialize in community studies. It is also useful for organizational studies such as observation of clinic operations, activities of field-workers, and administrative procedures.

An observational study is usually initiated from three different perspectives as outlined below:

  • Whether the observation is direct or indirect,
  • Whether the observer’s presence is known or unknown, and
  • ‘ What role the observer plays during the observation.

When an observation study is conducted with the first two approaches, we call it a non-participant observation study.

The third approach leads to a study which we refer to as participant observation study.

  • Participant observation: The observer takes part in the situation he or she observes.
  • Non-participant observation: The observer watches the situation openly, but does not

Direct observation

Direct observation refers to the situation when the observer remains physically present and personally monitors what takes place.

This approach is very flexible because it allows the observer to react to and report subtle aspects of events as they occur.

During the act of observation, the observer is free to change the focus of observation, concentrate on unexpected events, or even change the place of observation if the situation demands.

Indirect observation

Indirect observation occurs when the recording is done by mechanical, photographic, videotape, cameras, or other electronic means.

For example, a special camera may be set in a department store to study customers’ or employees’ movements.

A camera may also be mounted in a passenger train or plane to determine passenger’s comfort by observing how passengers sit and move in their seats. Such observation can also be conducted in planning traffic control and redesigning of peripheral streets.

The second approach of observation concerns whether the presence of the observer is known (overt) or unknown (covert) to the subjects. In an overt study, the observer remains visible to the observer, and the subjects are aware that they are being observed.

In a covert study, on the other hand, subjects are unaware that they are being observed.

The major problem with the overt study is that it may be reactive. That is, it may make the subjects ill at ease and cause them to act differently than they would if they were not being observed.

The covert study uses a concealment approach where the observers shield themselves from the object of their observations.

Often technical means are used, such as one-way mirrors, hidden cameras, or microphones.

This method reduces the risk of observer bias but brings up a question of ethical issues in the sense that hidden observation is a form of spying.

The third approach of data collection in natural settings is through participant observation, which refers to an observation in which an observer gains firsthand knowledge by being in and around the social setting that is being investigated.

With this method, the observer joins in the daily life of the group or organization he is studying.

He watches what happens to the members of the community and how they behave, and he also engages in conversations with them to find out their reactions to and interpretations of the events that have occurred.

Prolonged and personal interaction with the subjects of the research is the prime advantage of participant observation.

Extended contact with the subjects helps them feel comfortable in the participant observer’s presence. The observer’s task is to place himself in the best position for getting a complete and unbiased picture of the life of the community, which he is observing.

To ensure this, the observer needs to learn the language, habits, work patterns, leisure activities, and other aspects of their daily life. In participatory research, the researcher assumes either a complete participant role or a participant-as- observer role.

In a complete participant role, the observer is wholly concealed; the research activities are unknown to the subjects, and the researcher attempts to become a member of the group under observation.

The complete participant interacts with the subjects as naturally as possible.

Complete participation has been justified because it makes possible the study of inaccessible groups or groups that do not reveal to outsiders certain aspects of their lives.

Presumably, the observer is treated as just another member of the group being observed.

Despite this advantage, some researchers have severely criticized the complete participant approach on methodological and ethical ground. They maintain that such approaches constitute an invasion of privacy and may harm the subjects.

Given the above limitations, contemporary researchers most often advocate for participant-as-observer role. When researchers adopt this type of role, they inform the group being studied that there is a research agenda.

Researchers make long-term commitments to becoming active members of the group and attempt to establish close relationships with its members who subsequently serve as both informants and respondents.

With this method, the observer gains a deeper appreciation of the group and its way of life and may also gain different levels of insight by actually participating rather than only observing.

Types of Observation

In contrast, to survey research, in which the questions are standardized and constructed in advance to yield quantitative data, observational studies are much less structured and, at the same timeless systematic.

Nevertheless, an observational study should be so designed that it at least reflects the scientific procedures of other primary data collection procedures.

Bailey (1987) classifies observational studies by the degree of structure in the environmental setting and the amount of structure imposed on the environment by the researchers.

Following the author, there are two types of structure. The first is the degree of structure of the environment, which can be dichotomized as a natural setting or as an artificial or laboratory setting.

The other is the degree of structure imposed upon the observational environment by the researcher, which can again be dichotomized as structured (such as counting of the frequency with which certain behaviors occur) and unstructured, in which the researcher does not look for any particular behaviors but merely observes and records whatever occurs.

The resulting typology can be displayed in tabular form as follows:

Study typeEnvironment
Type 1: Completely unstructuredNatural setting
Type 2: UnstructuredLaboratory
Type 3: StructuredNatural setting
Type 4: Completely structuredLaboratory

In type 1 study, conducted in a natural setting, the researcher, as a participant-observer, becomes a part of the culture and describes in great detail everything surrounding the event or activity of interest.

In type 2, the researcher uses the laboratory facilities, such as videotape, two-way mirrors, etc.

In contrast, the type 3 study takes the advantages of a structured observational instrument in a natural setting and generally tends to be a non-participant study.

The type-4 study, being a completely structured study, requires a measuring instrument, called an observational checklist, analogous to a questionnaire, which should possess a high degree of precision in defining relevant behavior or acts and have mutually exclusive and exhaustive categories.

The coding is frequently closed. This study tends to be a no-participant observation study.

The major steps in an observational study as enumerated by Bailey (1987: 247) are:

  1. Decide upon the goals of the study;
  2. Decide upon the group for subjects to be observed;
  3. Gain entry to the group;
  4. Gain rapport with the subjects being studied;
  5. Conduct the study by observing and recording field notes over weeks, months or even years;
  6. Deal with crises that occur, such as confrontations with subjects who think you are some sort of spy;
  7. Exit from the observational stud;
  8. Analyze the data;
  9. Write a report presenting the findings.

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