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 your research question will determine the kinds of observations you can do. You could observe traffic or parking patterns on campus to get a sense of what improvements could be made. You could 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 both observe them and gain their consent.

Types of Observations

If you are observing people for WRIT 250, you will likely use unobtrusive observation. 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 not to 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 behavior without participant consent. If it is not practical to get participants’ consent and if your data is anonymous, unobtrusive observations do not violate people’s privacy in public spaces. In places that people perceive as private, which can include a church, home, classroom, or a conversation in a public space, participant consent should be sought.

A less common form of observation for WRIT 250 is participant observation, which is a method used frequently within ethnographic research in sociology and anthropology. In this kind of observation, a researcher may interact with participants and become part of their community. For example, Margaret Mead, a famous anthropologist, spent extended periods of time living in, and interacting with, communities that she studied.

Length of Observations

Observations, particularly when conducting ethnographic research, are often conducted over extensive periods of time, in some cases for several years. For example, Shirley Brice Heath spent nine years collecting observational data for her study exploring how children learned to use language at home and in school in two communities, Roadville and Trackton, located in the Piedmont Plateaus of the Carolinas. Her work, which is reported in Ways with Words:  Language, Life and Work in Communities and Classrooms, is often cited as an exemplar of ethnographic research.

However, sometimes a research project, such as that completed for a class, does not permit for such extensive data collection. You may only have a few days or even hours to conduct observations, in which case it is important to acknowledge the limited time frame of your data collection in your final report on your research.

Unbiased Observations

The ethical concern of being unbiased is important in recording your observations, which you will do in what is referred to as “field notes.” You need to be aware of the difference between an observation (recording exactly what you perceive through your senses) 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 field note entries:

  1. The student sitting in the dining hall enjoys his greasy, oil-soaked pizza. He is clearly oblivious to 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 will want to use an observation protocol. For example, you can use something called a double-entry notebook. This is an approach to recording field notes that encourages you to separate your observations (the facts) from your feelings and judgments about the facts. You simply draw a vertical line down your notebook pages and record your unbiased observations on the left side and your feelings about those events on the right. Some researchers also opt to include a third category in their notebooks for reflection, which enables them to identify why they may have reached the interpretation about the events that they did; for example, a researcher may have experienced something in the past that shaped their perception of an event. You could also use an observation or tallying log, a pre-made table or some other chart that you create before you begin the observation, to help you quickly indicate when certain behaviors or interactions are performed by the people you are observing. Both of these note-taking techniques allow you to make unbiased notes on observed behaviors and leave interpretation for the next stage of primary research: data analysis.

For additional information regarding strategies for writing field notes, we suggest Chapter 4 of Engaging Communities:  Writing Ethnographic Research.