While the term observation is used widely in discussions of psychological research, observational studies are specifically those in which participant observation is the main procedure for gathering data. While a variety of types of studies might employ different observational techniques, including experiments, a study with an exclusively observational design is one in which no independent variable is manipulated.
In structured observation, also known as systematic observation, an explicit coding framework is used in order to record and interpret behaviour. The coding plan may take a variety of forms: event coding, in which observers note specific events as they occur; sequential analysis, where observers take note of the order in which certain behaviours occur; and interval coding, in which observers code behaviours over specific time intervals. In order to minimize the subjectivity of observation, multiple observers may be used in the study and the inter-observer reliability of those observers assessed. One of the chief criticisms of structured observation is that a sufficiently detailed coding scheme reduces behaviours to body mechanics, rather than socially meaningful actions.
Controlled observation studies often deploy the techniques of structured observation. Controlled observation typically takes place in a specific environment, be it a laboratory or observation room, designed by the researcher. Additionally, naturalistic observation studies, or observations that occur in real world settings without intervention with the people being observed, can also rely on systematic observation strategies.
When participants are aware that they are being observed, researchers may see reactivity effects, that is, behavioural changes as a function of knowing one is being watched. Not informing participants that they are being watched eliminates these potential effects, but can be ethically dubious.
Participant observation occurs when the researcher participates in the group that he or she is observing. There are differing degrees of participation including full participant, participant as observer, observer as participant, and full observer. Participant observation brings up a number of ethical concerns, particularly surrounding the ethics of disclosure. Furthermore, although participant observation offers a certain degree of flexibility, as well as the opportunity to develop a relationship—and thus better understand—the group studied, subjectivity and researcher influence are genuine concerns in these types of studies.
Additional observational methods include qualitative non-participant observations, wherein researchers observe and categorize behaviour textually as an outsider; role play and simulation, where participants re-create or act out various social situations; and diary studies, that ask participants to reflect upon and record their daily experiences.
Case studies provide a good opportunity for participant observation and may be particularly useful when working with an outstanding or particularly unique case, when looking to contradict or test the boundaries of a theory, or when particularly detailed insight is sought. In addition, a researcher might pool a number of case studies to help better understand unusual experiences. At the same time, case studies have a number of shortcomings. Because these use a single participant, reliability and validity can be difficult to assess. Moreover, the intimacy fostered by the case study format may lead the researcher to have excessive, if unintentional, influence on the case. This level of involvement may also create an environment where objective analysis on the part of the observer is challenging or impossible.
Finally, indirect observation, such as analyses of archival data or verbal protocol data, allow for the study of people (and psychological processes) without direct interaction. This eliminates many of the ethical concerns that arise with other forms of observational studies, but at the cost of researcher control.
Additional Online Resources
Online Module on Participant Observation from UC-Davis: http://psychology.ucdavis.edu/faculty_sites/sommerb/sommerdemo/observation/partic.htm
Links to a number of resources on content analysis: http://bama.ua.edu/~wevans/content/ppp/ppp_menu.htm
Blog post about disclosure in participant observation: http://tasminrl.wordpress.com/2011/10/13/observations-overt-vs-covert/
Article about the unique issues and challenges associated with online survey research: http://www.amstat.org/sections/SRMS/Proceedings/y2004/files/Jsm2004-000440.pdf
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Interactive Quiz for Chapter 7
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