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What is observation?

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Origins and History

Observation is a fundamental way of finding out about the world around us. As human beings, we are very well equipped to pick up detailed information about our environment through our senses. However, as a method of data collection for research purposes, observation is more than just looking or listening. Research, simply defined, is “systematic enquiry made public” (Stenhouse, 1975). Firstly, in order to become systematic, observation must in some way be selective. We are constantly bombarded by huge amounts of sensory information. Human beings are good at selectively attending to what is perceived as most useful to us. Observation harnesses this ability; systematic observation entails careful planning of what we want to observe. Secondly, in order to make observation ‘public’, what we see or hear has to be recorded in some way to allow the information to be analysed and interpreted.

The origins of observation as a research technique coincide with the early development of science itself. In the natural sciences, for example, early progress was made primarily through very careful, systematic observation and recording of descriptions of phenomena in the natural world. The work of Charles Darwin would be a good example of the way in which careful observation provided the evidence which enabled him to build his theory of evolution in The Origin of Species. Observation in contemporary educational and social research deals with highly complex social phenomena and provides major challenges for the researcher.

The Role and Purpose of Observation

Quantitative Research

The term 'systematic' observation is usually associated with observation undertaken from the perspective of quantitative research where the purpose is to provide reliable, quantifiable data. This usually involves the use of some kind of formal, structured observation instrument or schedule. The observation method being used will clearly identify: the variables to be observed, perhaps by means of some kind of behavioural checklist; who or what will be observed; how the observation is to be conducted; and when and where the observations will take place.

Qualitative Research

Observation can provide rich qualitative data, sometimes described as 'thick description' (Geertz, 1973), for example, where the relevant phenomena have been carefully observed and detailed field notes have been recorded. Typically, the researcher would not approach the observation with pre-determined categories or questions in mind. Because of this openness, observation in qualitative research is often referred to as unstructured.

Structured observation is more likely to be carried out by those operating from a 'positivist' perspective, or who at least believe it is possible to clearly define and quantify behaviours.  Unstructured observation is more likely to be carried out by those operating from an 'interpretive' or 'critical' perspective where the focus is on understanding the meanings participants, in the contexts observed, attribute to events and actions.  Positivist and critical researchers are likely to be operating from a 'realist' perspective, namely that there is a 'real world' with 'real impact' on people's lives and this can best be studied by looking at social settings directly.

Many of the issues studied in this unit apply both to quantitative and qualitative approaches but we shall consider them separately.

Ethical Considerations

Observation poses potential ethical problems for researchers. The assumption of participation in research being on the basis of fully informed consent is challenged where there is a need for the observation to be unobtrusive and hence legitimate concern on the part of the researcher over the observer effect, i.e. where the behaviour under consideration will change when those being observed are aware of the presence of the observer. This is precisely the kind of situation which calls for the involvement of an ethics committee to weigh up the desirability of the research to go ahead against the interests of participants being fully informed of the research taking place. Another potential ethical issue arises with observational research as it does with any kind of research, namely, the duty of the researcher to protect participants from any harm. This, for example, would make an observational study of school bullying unethical. If a child were observed bullying another, there would be a responsibility on the part of the researcher to intervene in the situation to prevent any harm.