What is Observational Research?
The heart of social sciences is social research. One qualitative research method of obtaining information about social processes is through observational research, where the researcher systematically observes what is happening with no attempt to control, modify or influence the ongoing activity. Observational research is the process of watching people in context — in their natural environment, doing routine activities.
Direct observation is a valuable and underused technique for collecting data. It measures behavior directly, rather than reports of behavior or intentions. Thus, observational research is a direct approach to collecting data, as contrasted to surveying people about what they do or would do in different situations and assuming that they reported actual behaviors. In addition, observational research also allows for the flexibility of recording things we saw but didn’t expect.
In an observational study the researcher witnesses social behavior in its natural setting as an unobtrusive observer. An advantage of observational research is that the research directly observes subjects' behavior thus permitting access to nonverbal a well as verbal behavior. Observational data can take various forms from simple check-lists and counting to complex anthropological and sociological methods. We often choose observational data when we need the following
o to know who people are
o to know what people are actually doing
o to understand an on-going behavior or process
o physical data, such as how much food people left on the plate
o behavioral data, such as hand movements or shopping behavior
o data about the physical environment
o to understand ways of functioning
There are many positive aspects of the observational research approach. Observational research techniques involve only the researcher making observations. Observations are usually flexible and do not necessarily need to be structured around a hypothesis (remember a hypothesis is a statement about what you expect to observe). For instance, before undertaking more structured research a researcher may conduct observations in order to form a research question. This is called descriptive research.
However, there are negative aspects. In observational research, findings may only reflect a unique population and therefore we cannot generalize the findings to other populations. There are also problems with researcher bias. There is always the danger that the researcher may only "see what he wants to see."
Overall, though, observations are a valuable tool for sociological researchers.
Look at some examples of observational research.
How to Be an Effective Observer
o Know what you’re researching.
o Be open to research problem reformulation if that’s where the data lead you.
o Go where people are engaged in their daily lives.
o Know the culture.
o Decide how you’ll observe.
o Have a blank mind – be mindful of biases, experiences and expectations.
o Rehearse how you’ll explain your purpose.
o Document what you observe without expectations.
o Field notes should include accounts of events, behaviors, reactions, conversations, physical gestures, body language, facial expressions, etc.
o Summarize and expand on field notes as soon as possible.
o Check out GCU's Methods Manual: Guide to Systematic Observation.
9 Things to Remember about Observational Research
Observation remains the most underutilized qualitative technique. One of the reasons seems to be that many researchers just don’t know how to get value out of watching. Learning from watching is, in fact, hard. You need to train yourself to see, learn and think when you watch people do stuff.
o Observations are systematic. You need to have a plan before you begin. Know what you’re there to observe rather than trying to observe everything.
o What you’re looking for must be observable. This seems obvious but the number of studies that indicate observation of attitudes or emotions is surprising. While it is possible to make inferences about those aspects they generally are not observable phenomena. For example, a researcher decides that asking about liking is too direct and instead decides to watch people as they eat at a buffet. Based on the eating patterns of various people at the buffet, the researcher concludes that green salad is a well liked food. Unfortunately, the researcher fails to consider other explanations for why salad was selected so frequently (habits, customs, health aspects, other options at the buffet).
o "Ordinary" is what you’re there to observe. If you don’t go looking for something extraordinary, you won’t be so anxious when it doesn’t appear. What you’re really looking for are the insights hidden in ordinary.
o Whatever you saw could have happened differently. The first time you try observational research, I guarantee that you’ll find yourself wondering what there is about the things you’re seeing that requires an explanation. Once you recognize that everything people do is the result of something, you can begin looking for that something. Too, you cannot assume the events you observe are similar to those you don't see.
o Success is in the details. Take good notes. It is easy to become distracted and miss important cues. Events can happen very rapidly and you can miss important details. When writing field notes you should include descriptive as well as inferential data. It is important to describe the setting and the mood in a detailed manner. Record anything that may change behavior. The longer you wait to write your notes, the less likely they are to be accurate and perceptive. While not all of the following apply to every observation, you should keep them in mind when recording your field notes.
o Settings: Where does the observation take place? When? What is the physical layout? What objects are present?
o What day of the week is it? What time of day / night is it?
o People: Who is present? What type of person are they? How old are they? Why are they here? How are they arranged?
o Are there patterns related to demographic variables?
o Activities: What is going on? What are people doing?
o Signs: Are there any clues that provide evidence about meanings and behaviors?
o Events: Is this a regular occurrence? Or is it a special event such as a meeting or a disagreement?
o Time: In what order do things happen? Is there a reason for this?
o Goals: What are people trying to accomplish?
o Networks: How do the people know one another? Is their relationship social or organized on a commercial basis? Does the relationship change over time?
o The first things you see will be most memorable. Psychologists call this the primacy effect. Your initial impressions of a scene or person can have a distorting effect on later judgments. Stick around long enough to get over these.
o You will exaggerate the importance of unique events. Often observers are impressed with particular moments they observe. These moments may not be typical or representative of what normally occurs.
o You will succumb to confirmation bias. One of the most difficult aspects of human nature is that we tend to seek only evidence that confirms our own prior ideas. We call this confirmation bias. The secret to good observational research is to seek out counter-examples. If you ever find yourself thinking “all of them are …” you need to start looking for “one of them” who isn’t to make sure you aren’t seeing only what you wish to see. Try to keep an open mind. If you jump to early conclusions you’ll overlook important details.
o Respect the right to anonymity of those you observe. When reporting your observations, please do NOT provide identifying names or information. The people we observe have a right to remain anonymous. Too, under no circumstances are you allowed to make a visual or oral recording of subjects.
What are Core Values?
Each individual has a core of underlying values that contributes to his/her system of beliefs, ideas and/or opinions. Societies have values that are shared among many of the participants in that culture. Individuals' values typically are largely but not entirely in agreement with their culture's values. These values can be grouped into categories.
o ethics (good vs bad, virtue vs vice, moral vs immoral vs amoral, right vs wrong, permissible vs impermissible)
o aesthetics (beautiful, ugly, unbalanced, pleasing)
o doctrinal (political, ideological, religious or social beliefs and values)
Cultural values are general abstract ideas that shape the ideals and goals of society. A culture's values are its ideas about what is good, right, fair and just. Sociologists disagree, however, on how to conceptualize values. Conflict theory focuses on how values differ between groups within a culture, while functionalism focuses on the shared values within a culture. For example, American sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested that the most important values in American society are wealth, success, power and prestige, but that everyone does not have an equal opportunity to attain these values. Functional sociologist Talcott Parsons noted that Americans share the common value of the “American work ethic,” which encourages hard work. Other sociologists have proposed a common core of American values, including accomplishment, material success, problem-solving, reliance on science and technology, democracy, patriotism, charity, freedom, equality and justice, individualism, responsibility and accountability.
A culture, though, may harbor conflicting values. For instance, the value of material success may conflict with the value of charity. Or the value of equality may conflict with the value of individualism. Such contradictions may exist due to an inconsistency between people's actions and their professed values. Sociologists must carefully distinguish between what people do and what they say. Real culture refers to the values and norms that a society actually follows, while ideal culture refers to the values and norms that a society professes to believe.
What is Content Analysis?
Content analysis is a research tool used to determine the presence of certain words or concepts within texts or sets of texts. Researchers quantify and analyze the presence, meanings and relationships of such words and concepts, then make inferences about the messages within the texts, the writer(s), the audience and even the culture and time of which these are a part. Texts can be defined broadly as books, book chapters, essays, interviews, discussions, newspaper headlines and articles, historical documents, speeches, conversations, advertising, theater, informal conversation or really any occurrence of communicative language. Content analysis has the advantage of being unobtrusive and can be a relatively rapid method for analyzing large amounts of text.
Perhaps due to the fact that it can be applied to examine any piece of writing or occurrence of recorded communication, content analysis is currently used in a dizzying array of fields, ranging from marketing and media studies, to literature and rhetoric, ethnography and cultural studies, gender and age issues, sociology and political science, psychology and cognitive science, and many other fields of inquiry. The following list (adapted from Berelson, 1952) offers more possibilities for the uses of content analysis.
o reveal international differences in communication content
o detect the existence of propaganda
o identify the intentions, focus or communication trends of an individual, group or institution
o describe attitudinal and behavioral responses to communications
o determine the psychological or emotional state of persons or groups
There are two general categories of content analysis: conceptual analysis and relational analysis. Conceptual analysis can be thought of as establishing the existence and frequency of concepts – most often represented by words of phrases – in a text. For instance, say you have a hunch that your favorite poet often writes about hunger. With conceptual analysis you can determine how many times words such as “hunger,” “hungry,” “famished” or “starving” appear in a volume of poems. In contrast, relational analysis goes one step further by examining the relationships among concepts in a text. Returning to the “hunger” example, with relational analysis, you could identify what other words or phrases “hunger” or “famished” appear next to and then determine what different meanings emerge as a result of these groupings.
What you are doing for this activity is an informal type of concept analysis. Usually, concept analysis involves looking for a specific list of words, synonyms and/or phrases. However, since you are looking for core values from societies different from your own, I want you to be more open-minded about what words you believe are important. “Material comfort” may be one of our core values but it might not be a core value of any other culture so it would be a waste of time to look for those specific words. Instead, get a “feel” for what an article, headline, advertisement, etc may be trying to say and decide if you think it indicates a core value of that culture.
Some examples of content analysis:
o Kenneth Janda's Religion in Presidential Addresses conceptual analysis
o content analysis of pre-election promises compared with a politician's subsequent performance
o A content analysis of obituaries of male and female managers in major newspapers in Austria, Germany and Switzerland showed that different terminology was used to describe men and women after death. Men were more likely to be described as expert and knowledgeable in their fields. Women were more often described as skilled in interpersonal relations.
o An Israeli researcher reviewed a large body of Hebrew children's literature published after the Six Days War of 1967. Arabs were depicted as unattractive in nearly all of the stories. In 1980 the situation had changed. Arabs were presented as individuals rather than as stereotypes. Some Arabs were good, some were bad, but they were depicted as human beings.
Toward a Global Culture
Some sociologists today predict that the world is moving closer to a global culture, void of cultural diversity. A fundamental means by which cultures come to resemble each other is via the phenomenon of cultural diffusion, the spreading of standards across cultures. Cultures have always influenced each other through travel, trade and even conquest. As populations today travel and settle around the globe, however, the rate of cultural diffusion is increasing dramatically. Examples of social forces that are creating a global culture include electronic communications (telephones, email, fax machines), the mass media (television, radio, film), the news media, the internet, international businesses and banks and the United Nations — to name only a few. Even phrases like “global village” seem to imply that the world is growing “smaller” every day.
Still, while many aspects of culture have been globalized, local societies and cultures remain stable and, in many instances, are affirmed with enthusiasm. Although people may relocate on the other side of the planet, they tend to remain faithful to their culture of origin. Too, while the recent flow of goods, information and people between societies seems to have led to similarities in various cultural patterns worldwide, rural areas remain largely unaffected. Not many citizens of poorer societies can afford imported goods, and the question remains whether people everywhere attach the same meaning to cultural entities.
To look at some of the possible core values of other cultures, try the following links.