Chapter Summary

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:

Links to a number of resources on content analysis:

Blog post about disclosure in participant observation:

Article about the unique issues and challenges associated with online survey research:


Test your knowledge of the keywords and definitions in the chapter.


Interactive Quiz for Chapter 7

Instructions: For each question, click on the radio button beside your answer. When you have completed the entire quiz, click the “Submit my answers” button at the bottom of the page to receive your results.

Question 1:

a) diary study
b) content analysis
c) real-time study
d) lived experience study

Question 2:

a) ethnography
b) observational collapse
c) participant observation
d) observer bias

Question 3:

a) debriefing
b) disclosure
c) participant observation
d) simulation

Question 4:

a) time sampling considers consecutive time periods whereas interval coding considers non-consecutive time periods
b) interval coding considers consecutive time periods whereas time sampling considers non-consecutive time periods
c) interval coding doesn’t take into account the sequences of events while time sampling does
d) time sampling doesn’t take into account the sequences of events while interval coding does

Question 5:

a) it doesn’t result in enough data
b) it fails at holistic understanding
c) it is not particularly valid
d) it makes tests of reliability difficult

Question 6:

a) replication can be more difficult
b) there is a certain artificiality to naturalistic observation
c) it is a more flexible approach
d) cause and effect are easier to determine

Question 7:

a) disclosure effects
b) indirect observation effects
c) low reliability
d) reactivity effects

Question 8:

a) full participant
b) participant as observer
c) observer as participant
d) full observer

Question 9:

a) assessment of commonplace cases
b) furthering support for a theory
c) providing greater insight into special circumstances
d) none of the above

Question 10:

a) Controlled observation designs
b) Participant observation designs
c) Naturalistic observation designs
d) Both A and B