Advantages of Observation as A Method of Data Collection
The main strength of observation is that it provides direct access to the social phenomena under consideration. Instead of relying on some kind of self-report, such as asking people what they would do in a certain situation, you actually observe and record their behaviour in that situation. This, in principle at least, avoids the wide range of problems associated with self-report. In an interview situation or in response to a questionnaire item, for example, a person may not always provide accurate or complete information, or they might answer in ways that correspond to what is socially desirable. There is a recognised source of bias in self-report techniques referred to as a 'social desirability set', which means that in many spheres of social life there are socially desirable ways of behaving and, consciously or unconsciously, individuals will tend to respond in that way, although in the 'real world' they might behave differently. Asking children whether they would tend to be helpful to other children in certain situations, for example, would be susceptible to such a source of bias.
Diversity, Flexibility and Applicability
Observation can take diverse forms, from informal and unstructured approaches through to tightly structured, standardised procedures and can yield associated diverse types of data, both qualitative and quantitative. Observation, therefore, is applicable in a wide range of contexts.
Provision of a permanent record
Much of human social behaviour that may be of interest to the researcher is highly transient. The fact that all observation entails some form of recording means that it provides a permanent record of such events or behaviour, thus allowing further analysis or subsequent comparisons across time or location to be carried out.
Complementarity with other approaches
Using more than one technique of data collection through a process of triangulation is seen as highly desirable as an overarching research strategy. Therefore, another strength of observation is that it can effectively complement other approaches and thus enhance the quality of evidence available to the researcher.
Disadvantages of Observation
One of the main disadvantages of observation is that it can be very time consuming and resource intensive. Observation may be a very desirable strategy to explore certain research questions, but it may simply not be feasible for the researcher with limited time and resources to carry out the observation and, therefore, alternative strategies would have to be pursued.
A fundamental potential weakness of all observation is that it is susceptible to observer bias – subjective bias on the part of the observer – thus undermining the reliability and hence the validity of the data gathered. This can be because the observer records not what actually happened, but what they either wanted to see, expected to see, or merely thought they saw.
Another potential weakness of observation is the so-called observer effect, which refers to the way in which the presence of an observer in some way influences the behaviour of those being observed. In order to avoid or minimise this, methods of observation sometimes attempt to be as unobtrusive as possible.