It is watching other persons’ behaviour as it actually happens without controlling it.
Example: Watching the life of street-children provides a detailed description of their social life.
Lindzey Gardner (1975) has defined it as “selection, provocation, recording and encoding of that set of behaviour and settings concerning organisms ‘in situ’ (naturalistic settings or familiar surroundings) which are consistent with empirical aims”.
The keywords of the above definition are:
Selection: There is a focus in observation and also editing before, during and after the observations are made.
Provocation: Though observers do not destroy natural settings but they can make subtle changes in natural settings which increases clarity.
Recording: The observed incidents/events are recorded for subsequent analysis.
Encoding: Simplification of records.
What is observed in observation method?
According to Zikmund (1988), six kinds of contents/dimensions can be observed in observation method. These are:
Physical actions: Pattern of working, watching TV etc.
Verbal behaviour: Conversations between students, workers etc.
Expressive behaviour: Tone of voice, facial expressions etc.
Spatial relations: Physical distance between workers in a factory, two students in conversation etc.
Temporal patterns: Amount of time spent in performing rituals, shopping, conversation etc.
Verbal records: Content of slogan shouted, scolding etc.
Characteristics of observation:
Lofland has said that this method is more appropriate for studying lifestyles or sub-cultures, practices, episodes, encounters, relationships, groups, organizations, settlements, and roles.
The following are the characteristics of observation among others:
1. Behaviour is observed in natural surroundings.
2. It enables understanding significant events affecting social relations of the participants.
3. It determines reality from the viewpoint of the observed person/Researcher.
4. It avoids manipulations in the independent variables.
5. Recording of data is not selective.
Purpose of observation:
The major purposes of observation as described by Black and Champion are as under:
1. To capture human conduct as it actually happens. In other methods, we get a static comprehension of people’s activity. In actual situation, they sometimes modify their views, sometimes contradict themselves, and sometimes are so swayed away by the situation that they react differently altogether. Ex: Tone of voice, facial expressions and content of slogans by the demonstrators.
2. To provide more graphic description of social life than can be acquired in other ways. Example: The graphic details of behaviour of women when they are physically assaulted by their husbands can only be got by observation method.
3. To explore important events and situations. By being present on the scene, issues that might otherwise be overlooked are examined more carefully. Example: Visiting office soon after the office hours and finding that the married men and single women are working overtime whereas single men and married women had gone home.
4. It can be used as a tool of collecting information in situations where methods other than observation cannot prove to be useful. Example: Workers’ behaviour during a strike.
Process of observation:
Since observation involves sensitive human interactions, it cannot be reduced to a simple set of techniques. Yet some scholars have tried to point out the path that the observer in the fieldwork has to follow:
Williamson, et al (1977) have pointed out the following four stages through which an observer has to pass:
1. Choosing a research site
2. Gaining access in setting and taking role
3. Jotting down notes
4. Formulating analysis
Choosing a research site:
After deciding the problem or the phenomenon of interest, the researcher can pinpoint a manageable area for observation and data collection.
Gaining access in setting and taking role:
Once the site for the study is chosen, the observer faces the problem of obtaining entry in the setting. This is possible by spelling out the motives of the study and seeking permission from the administrator or by concealing the motive and seeking the help of a known person in the situation. In some settings, however, the entry is not restricted. It is free and open to anyone who might choose to be there.
Raymond Gold (1969) has pointed out four basic roles which a fieldworker (observer) can assume:
Complete observer: Here, the observer remains disguised and detached from the situation studied.
Observer as participant: The observer is completely open about his research objectives and he approaches people on that basis.
Participant as observer: Here, the observer gets involved effectively or conceals his role as researcher.
Complete participant: The observer becomes fully involved both behaviourally and emotionally.
After gaining access and taking up role, the success or failure of getting information by the observer would depend upon the trust or the mistrust he is able to get from the people who are to be observed.
Jotting down notes: Taking accurate and detailed notes objectivity is very crucial. Since the researchers initially may not know which data would be ultimately useful and important, he should take down all details to be sorted out later on. The notes should record the description of the setting under investigation, description of subjects, and description of conversations with persons and among persons, and any fact or relevance or of unusual importance. This should be followed by tentative explanations of things observed.
Formulating analysis: It is possible that two researchers studying/observing same situation may give two different types of analyses, particularly if the analysis is qualitative. One might focus on one type of social dimensions and other on different types altogether. One analysis may challenge the existing theoretical view of social life while other may support it. Classifying the initial data one the basis of accepted concepts and categories (like status, role, soicialisation, mobility, structure and so on.) may provide a core basis but later on new conceptual categories may be developed.
Sarantakos (1998) has pointed out the following six steps in the observation:
Selection of the topic: This refers to the issue to be studied though observation. It may be marital conflict, domestic violence, riot, caste panchayat meeting in a village, child labourers in a glass factory among others.
Formulation of the topic: This involves fixing of categories to be observed and pointing out the situations in which cases are to be observed. Example: The life of child labourers in glass factories: A study in X factory of Kanpur.
Research design: This determines identification of subjects to be observed, preparing observation schedule, if any, and arranging entry in situations to be observed.
Collection of data: This involves familiarization with the setting, observation and recording.
Analysis of data: In this stage, the researcher analyses the data, prepares tables, and interprets the facts.
Report writing: This involves writing of the report for submission to the sponsoring agency or for publication.
Advantages of observation:
Bailey (1998: 249-50) has pointed out four advantages of observation:
Superior in data collection on non-verbal behaviour: When a person’s opinion on a particular issue is to be assessed, survey method is definitely more useful, but when the non-verbal behaviour is to be discovered or when memory failure of the respondent is possible, observation will be more functional.
Intimate and informal relationship: Since the observer often lives with the subjects for an extended period of time, the relationship between them is often more intimate and more informal than in a survey in which the interviewer meets the respondents for 30-40 minutes on a very formal basis.
Natural environment: The behaviour being observed in a natural environment will not cause any bias. Observation will neither be artificial nor restrictive.
Longitudinal analysis: In observation, the researcher is able to conduct his study over a much longer period than in the survey.
Sarantakos has mentioned the following advantages of observation among others:
1. It is less complicated and less time-consuming.
2. It offers data when respondents are unable or unwilling to cooperate for giving information.
3. It allows collection of wide range of information.
Limitations of observation:
According to Bailey (1982:250-52), the disadvantages in observation technique are:
Lack of control: In natural setting, control over variables is not possible that affect the data.
Difficulties of quantification: The data collected through observation cannot be quantified. In communal riots, looting, arson, killing may be observed but it cannot be quantified what type of people indulged in what? It is difficult to categorise in-depth emotional and humanistic data.
Small sample size: Observational studies use a smaller sample than survey studies.
Gaining entry: Many times the observer has difficulties in receiving approval for the study. It is not always easy to observe the functioning of an organization or institution without obtaining permission from the administrator. In such cases, he may not record observations then and there but may write notes at night.
Lack of anonymity/studying sensitive issues: In observational studies it is difficult to maintain the respondent’s anonymity.
Limited study: All aspects of the problems cannot be studied simultaneously. The observation technique studies only limited issues. Similarly, internal attitudes and opinions cannot be studied.
(This has been compiled by inputs from various books written by C.R. Kothari, Wimmer & Dominique, Kerlinger, Ram Ahuja, Trochim, Ranjit Kumar among others.)