Observation — A Data Collection Approach

 Observation — A Data Collection Approach

Azher Hameed Qamar, PhD (www.drazher.com)

Today I will talk about observation as a data collection method. After talking briefly about its different types, I will talk a little more about participant observation with reference to ethnographic inquiry.

However, before I talk about observation, please take a look at the words on this slide. What are these words—or, I should say, verbs—and what do they mean for you as an observer? These are the key questions that not only define what you are going to do but also why you are going to do it. For example, in observation, you see, hear, observe, and experience... and it helps you learn and know about something you do not know, and what you learn or know in this way is your data. Anyhow, it also depends on your research objectives and the extent to which you want to use observation as a data collection method.

If you remember these words, it will be easy for you to understand observation and its different types. Let us begin.

Generally speaking, there are two major types of observation. That is both indirect and direct observation.

Indirect observation is more about non-reactive or unobtrusive observation, where the observer does not directly interact with or interfere with the subjects under observation. For example, standing at a traffic signal and watching traffic regulations being followed, or watching a documentary may also be an indirect observation if you intend to do it.

The other major type is direct observation that can be divided in two types: direct observation without intervention, and direct observation with intervention

Naturalistic observation is the observation of behaviors in the real world, without interfering with or influencing the natural setting of the behavior. Naturalistic observation has a specific research goal and a clear research objective. For example, observing animal behaviors in certain natural conditions (because you find it difficult to understand their behavior in a lab setting that is structured and controlled) is an example of structured and controlled observation. Similarly, observing students in their classroom is a naturalistic observation because no classroom setting is recreated in order to engage students under observation.

Other types of observation with intervention include structured observation and participant observation. Structured observation, as I just mentioned, is a controlled observation where the observer can use predefined or predetermined markers to recreate the environment or setting where the observer is interested in observing the behavior. For example, developmental psychologists who are interested in observing children's behavior at different stages use structured observations.

Now, before I talk about participant observation, let us see what is non-participant observation.

As the name implies, there is no interference or interaction by the researcher during non-participant observation. To put it another way, it is a ‘fly on the wall’ observation, which means going to a specific location and observing what is happening, for example, observing customers in a shopping mall.

Non-participant observation may be overt or covert. Overt means that people know who is the observer, yet no interaction or interference is involved. For example, joining an organizational meeting as a researcher, where obviously people know your are not one of them, and that you are here to observe the meeting proceedings etc.

On the other hand, covert means hidden or invisible, so the people do not know that they are being observed, as I said about observing in a shopping mall.

Well, it must be in your knowledge that people may change their behavior when they know they are being observed. However, there are several other techniques to handle these issues, that I will discuss in another lecture.

In some ways, non-participant observation is a form of passive participation because the researcher is at the site of the observation and making a direct observation.

Ok, now participant observation. Participant observation is an important data collection tool for social and cultural anthropologists. It helps to understand the context and, later, contextually validate the research findings accordingly. It teaches about participants' cultural lives in their natural environment and serves as a guide for conducting interviews and discussions.

Participant observation helps the researcher provide a thick and rich description of the phenomenon and the behavior. While people may be different in what they say and do, participant observation with longer time durations is helpful to understand the contextual meanings of human behavior. It helps to understand what is happening and why it is happening that way.

However, there are several challenges that require intensive training and sufficient skills before going to the field. These challenges are related to the contextual sensitivity and complexity that a researcher may face in the field. Language barriers, gender boundaries, norms, values, and social sanctions are crucial aspects of the social and cultural context of people's lives that should not be compromised at all.

A participant observer may be a native (the insider) or a non-native (the outsider).

A native researcher, though she overcomes several cultural barriers, is too close to the data that there is a chance to perceive things as taken for granted. Hence, there is a need to learn how to maintain a distance, and that is another topic I will discuss in another presentation.

Whereas, a non-native researcher who is an absolute outsider has the advantage of seeing things from a distance without making predetermined or taken-for-granted assumptions. However, there are serious challenges related to cultural familiarity and language barriers that may distort the meaning-making process. Anyway, again, there are other ways and methodological strategies that are used to handle this challenge.

Here, I must mention one thing: we humans are never neutral. So even a non-native researcher has his or her own social, cultural, and political characteristics, and that means that he or she is not without biases that may interfere at some stage.

Another type of participant-observer may be the one who is native and non-native in different ways; for example, when I was doing ethnographic inquiry in a village in south Punjab, I had a bunch of resources as a native Punjabi that helped me understand language barriers, gender, and social sanctions. On the other hand, I lived and was brought up in a big city in Punjab, which makes me a non-native to the traditional rural context.

As a result, I found myself in a position where I was both too far from and too close to the data. However, this was challenging in terms of knowing when and how to shift my position. I wrote an article about it with detailed information. You can find the link in the video description.

So for a researcher to enjoy both insider and outsider positions, they must be skilled in negotiating the two positions, or, so to speak, two identities, in a way to get the most out of participant observation.

Well, in the end, it is good if we can understand the extent to which the participant observers engage themselves in observation, and it depends on the research objectives, the data collection approach, and the researcher’s epistemological and methodological position.

So a participant observer may be a passive participant (that is / no interference and no interaction)

Moderate participation means restricting the total immersion of going native in the field and being an observer who is interactive enough to engage people in discussions and friendly conversations.

Then the Active participation / it is to go native, to be one of them, to live with them for a longer period of time, trying to live as they live.

Finally, the complete participant... and that is a researcher who is actually one of them, …. The native researcher...

So you see the level of participation varies and sometimes researchers find themselves in more then one level of participation, and again it is about what .. Why… and how you are researching.

Well, thank you. I'll post another interesting topic in qualitative research soon.