Marshall and Rossman (1989) define observation as “the systematic description of events, behaviors, and artifacts in the social setting chosen for study” (p.79). This method forms the very foundation of science; it is the technique most closely related to everyday life. The method involves watching and recording the behaviour of individuals or groups, or the events that occur in a particular place; it enables the researcher to explain existing situations using senses (Erlandson, Harris, Skipper & Allen, 1993). Observation is a powerful data collection method which is used in various qualitative studies like ethnography and case studies (Kawulich, 2005).
There are two forms of observation that a researcher may adopt in a study – participant observer or non-participant observer:
- As a participant observer, the researcher actively joins in the activities of the people he/she is observing. In such situation, the researcher may not take notes, for such may interrupt the normal flow of events. It is advisable to make notes or record the observation later.
- As a non-participant observer, the researcher avoids interacting with the group unless approached. If this happens, then the researcher tries to keep his/her interaction to the least while retaining social etiquette. The aim of this kind of observation is to remain neutral, not to influence the behaviour of those under observation. The role of non-participant observer is a passive one.
The major limitation of observation method is the researcher’s bias. There are also other demographic characteristics of the researcher such as gender, sexuality, ethnicity, class, and theoretical approach which are likely to affect observation, analysis, and interpretation.
Despite its limitations, the main advantage of using the method is that it allows for collection of richly detailed data and provides opportunities for viewing or participating in unscheduled events (DeMunck and Sobo, 1998). Further, as DeWalt and DeWalt (2002) observe, the method also improves the quality of data collection and interpretation and facilitates the development of new research questions or hypotheses (p.8).
DeMunck, V.C., & Sobo, E. J. (Eds) (1998). Using methods in the field: a practical introduction and casebook. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
DeWalt, K.M., & DeWalt, B.R. (2002). Participant observation: a guide for fieldworkers. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
Erlandson, D. A., Harris, E. L., Skipper, B. L., & Allen, S.D. (1993). Doing naturalistic inquiry: a guide to methods. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Kawulich, B.B. (2005). Participant Observation as a Data Collection Method. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 6(2), Art. 43, http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:0114-fqs0502430.
Marshall, C., & Rossman, G.B. (1995). Designing Qualitative Research. London: Sage Publications.