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10.4: Observations

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    Observations have lead to some of the most important scientific discoveries in human history. Charles Darwin used observations of the animal and marine life at the Galapagos Islands to help him formulate his theory of evolution that he describes in On the Origin of Species. Today, social scientists, natural scientists, engineers, computer scientists, educational researchers, and many others use observations as a primary research method.

    Observations can be conducted on nearly any subject matter, and the kinds of observations you will do depend on your research question. You might observe traffic or parking patterns on campus to get a sense of what improvements could be made. You might observe clouds, plants, or other natural phenomena. If you choose to observe people, you will have several additional considerations including the manner in which you will observe them and gain their consent.

    If you are observing people, you can choose between two common ways to observe: participant observation and unobtrusive observation. Participant observation is a common method within ethnographic research in sociology and anthropology. In this kind of observation, a researcher may interact with participants and become part of their community. Margaret Mead, a famous anthropologist, spent extended periods of time living in, and interacting with, communities that she studied. Conversely, in unobtrusive observation, you do not interact with participants but rather simply record their behavior. Although in most circumstances people must volunteer to be participants in research, in some cases it is acceptable to not let participants know you are observing them. In places that people perceive as public, such as a campus food court or a shopping mall, people do not expect privacy, and so it is generally acceptable to observe without participant consent. In places that people perceive as private, which can include a church, home, classroom, or even an intimate conversation at a restaurant, participant consent should be sought.

    The second issue about participant consent in terms of unobtrusive observation is whether or not getting consent is feasible for the study. If you are observing people in a busy airport, bus station, or campus food court, getting participant consent may be next to impossible. In Derek’s study of student eating habits on campus, he went to the campus food courts during meal times and observed students purchasing food. Obtaining participant consent for his observations would have been next to impossible because hundreds of students were coming through the food court during meal times. Since Derek’s research was in a place that participants would perceive as public, it was not practical to get their consent, and since his data was anonymous, he did not violate their privacy.

    Eliminating Bias in Your Observation Notes

    The ethical concern of being unbiased is important in recording your observations. You need to be aware of the difference between an observation (recording exactly what you see) and an interpretation (making assumptions and judgments about what you see). When you observe, you should focus first on only the events that are directly observable.
    Consider the following two example entries in an observation log:

    1. The student sitting in the dining hall enjoys his greasy, oil-soaked
    pizza. He is clearly oblivious of the calorie content and
    damage it may do to his body.

    2. The student sits in the dining hall. As he eats his piece of pizza,
    which drips oil, he says to a friend, “This pizza is good.”

    The first entry is biased and demonstrates judgment about the event. First, the observer makes assumptions about the internal state of the student when she writes “enjoys” and “clearly oblivious to the calorie content.” From an observer’s standpoint, there is no way of ascertaining what the student may or may not know about pizza’s nutritional value nor how much the student enjoys the pizza. The second entry provides only the details and facts that are observable.

    To avoid bias in your observations, you can use something called a “double-entry notebook.” This is a type of observation log that encourages you to separate your observations (the facts) from your feelings and judgments about the facts.

    Screenshot (601).png

    Figure 3: Two sample entries from a double-entry notebook.

    Observations are only one strategy in collecting primary research. You may also want to ask people directly about their behaviors, beliefs, or attitudes—and for this you will need to use surveys or interviews.






    10.4: Observations is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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