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Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2017

Page updated 13 January, 2017

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2017, Researching the Real World, available at
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A Guide to Methodology

3. Observation

3.1 Introduction

3.1.1 Participant observation and ethnography

3.2 Aspects

3.2.1 Extent of participation (observer role)
3.2.2 Degree of openness
3.2.3 Explanation of purpose
3.2.4 Degree of obtrusiveness
3.2.5 Active or passive
3.2.6 Length and frequency of observation
3.2.7 Focus of observation
3.2.8 Summary

3.3 Methodological approaches

3.3.1 Positivism and observation
3.3.2 Phenomenology and observation
3.3.3 Critical social research and observation

3.4 Access

3.4.1 Introduction
3.4.2 Negotiating with gatekeepers
3.4.3 Insider status
3.4.4 Continuing negotiation of access
3.4.5 The interrelationship of access negotiation and data collection

3.5 Recording data

3.5.1 Introduction
3.5.2 What data to record
3.5.3 How to record data

3.6 Analysing observational or ethnographic data

3.6.1 Introduction
3.6.2 Electronic qualitative data analysis packages

3.7 Summary

3.1 Introduction
Observation is a major means by which people develop their knowledge of the world in which they live. Sociologists have also made use of this as a means of developing theories about the social world. Directly-observed phenomena are important in structuring the way we frame social concepts. Observation studies are undertaken in nearly all areas of sociological enquiry but have been developed in particular in studies of communities, organisations, work, leisure, health-care settings, deviance, and education. However, it is important to note that very few sociological studies rely solely on observation. In most cases, observation is combined with other forms of enquiry in developing explanations, interpretations or understanding of social phenomena. This chapter focuses on observation per se but also shows how it relates to other techniques within different epistemological frameworks (Section 3.2)

In our everyday activities we make widespread use of observation but we tend to be unsystematic and very selective about what we observe. Our everyday observation tends to focus on our immediate concerns and we tend not to question those things we take for granted. We tend to make use of observation to confirm our assumptions about the world around us and to reinforce our preconceptions. When sociologists make use of observation in their study of the social world they use it as much to question preconceptions as to reinforce them. This is important. Sociological observation is an attempt to undertake a systematic analysis of the social setting and to use it to develop ‘rich descriptions’ (also called 'thick descriptions') or theories about the social world. There are various ways of doing this, as we shall see. Sociologists undertake observation studies to see the world in a new way, not just to confirm their preconceptions. This involves ‘looking hard’ at all aspects of what is going on, not picking out one or two events and using them to confirm taken-for-granted views about the nature of the social world.

Observation, as a methodological tool, should, therefore, be systematic, inquisitive, self-reflective and critical. In practice, not all observation research is all of these things but it must at least do more than simply reinforce preconceptions and prejudices. Furthermore, what distinguishes social scientific observation from other forms (such as journalism or ‘everyday’ observation) is the generation, construction and testing of theory (Hammersley and Atkinson, 1983).

It is often supposed, especially by positivists (see Section 3.3.1) that observation research is not 'scientific' enough to develop or test theory and that it's value is mainly providing initial or background exploration in advance of quantitative approaches. Indeed some commentators (such as Hammersely 1990b) argue that observation research cannot develop theory because it isn't testable or suitable for generalisations (see Section 1.10.1).

However, Power (2002, p. 88), for example, maintained that qualitative research, had made a significant contribution to the study of HIV/AIDS:

Since the 1980s, qualitative research has deepened our understanding of cultural and contextual lifestyle issues (Martin et al., 1995; Caparara et al., 1993); risk and risk negotiation around sex and drug injecting (Donovan et al., 1994; Cohen et al., 1994; Capelhorn and Saunders, 1993) sensitive areas, such as HIV status and sexual identity disclosure (Bernard, 1993; Moneyham et al., 1996) and the attitudes towards risk and sexual health of healthcare workers and target populations (Watt and Croucher, 1991; Corby and Wolitski, 1991)....Work in Holland graphically described the high risk practices of front and back loading when preparing illicit drugs for injection, (Grund et al., 1991) while similar ethnographic research in Chicago, USA, identified typologies of "shooting galleries" frequented by street drug users (Ouellet et al., 1991). The work of Bernard and McKeganey (1996) in Glasgow, Scotland, illustrates the potential and value of participant observation among commercial sex workers.

The literature suggests that sociologists adopt two broad approaches to observation, participant and non-participant. As the name suggests, participant observation involves the researcher in becoming part of the group or situation that is being studied. James Patrick (1973) joined a Glasgow gang; Ned Polsky (1971) played pool with hustlers; Ruth Cavendish (1982) worked for a year as an assembler on a production line; William Foote Whyte ([1943] 1955) went to live in a slum area of Boston; Blanche Geer went to lectures and hung around with medical students (Becker et al., 1961); Gordon Marshall (1986) spent almost a year as a barman in a licensed restaurant; Tanya Luhrman (1989) joined a witches’ coven in London, Julia Lawton (2001) was a carer in an in-patient hospice, Jorge Silva (2004) worked in a Portuguese venture capital firm.

Non-participant observation means that the researcher does not participate in the activities being observed. However, as we shall see, these are not as distinct as they appear in practice and there are a range of approaches to participant observation and non-participant observation that tend to have a degree of overlap: the categories have fuzzy edges. Furthermore, observation (participant and non-participant) is often used in conjunction with other methods, such as in-depth interviews, conversation analysis, document analysis as well as surveys. Lynnette Kelly (2003, p. 36), in her study of Bosnian refugees used:

participant observation, interviews with refugees, interviews with staff, interviews with community association representatives and the analysis of primary data sources. Formal interviews were conducted with former employees of the Bosnia Project, Bosnian Community Association representatives and, in addition, 28 formal interviews were conducted with Bosnian refugees. Most of the participant observation fieldwork took place in a city in the Midlands and, in addition, visits were made to other cities and towns in order to observe meetings and social events and to carry out some of the interviews. I attended two weddings and the subsequent celebrations, one New Year party and several other social functions, as well as visiting many Bosnians in their homes and taking part in informal socializing. The five community associations that were studied were located in Central and Northern England in areas where refugees, who came as part of the Bosnia Project, had been settled.

Ursula Sharma and Paula Black (2001) mixed their methods in their exploratory study of beauty therapists in two industrial cities.

We conducted interviews with eight members of staff [of a further education college] and seven other experienced therapists and salon owners (mainly members of the college advisory board) …. In addition … we carried out participant observation in Northern College (for instance, by volunteering to receive treatments from students; …. We also visited a limited number of salons as clients. In addition to this fieldwork we studied the literature and journals disseminated by professional organisations catering for beauty therapists and interviewed some of their officials.

And Teela Sanders’ (2004, p. 275) study of sex workers included formal taped interviews with 50 sex workers, three female owners of establishments and two female receptionists alongside 1000 hours of observation ‘in saunas, brothels, women’s homes and on the street, conversing with a further 175 sex workers’. Similarly, Talja Blokland's (2008) two-year ethnographic study of a high-crime area in America involved participant observations, 35 taped in-depth interviews and structured interviewing with a sample of 36 residents otherwise not partaking in the research.

Observation, in mixed-mode research, often provides background context for the data collected through other means. Garry Crawford (2005) used questionnaires and interviews as well as participant observation and noted:

The observation work is primarily used as background in my research, though I do explicitly use this for a chapter of my PhD, where I describe and consider a ‘typical’ hockey night in Manchester.


3.1.1 Participant observation and ethnography
There is also a degree of confusion and conflation of the terms ‘ethnography’ and ‘participant observation’. In many respects participant observation and ethnography overlap.

Participant observation involves observing while participating, in some way, in a research setting. In practice, participant observers tend to do more than just observe as participants, they talk to research subjects, this may involve both informal chats and more formal in-depth interviews, they read documents and engage in discussions as part of their role as a participant. In some cases, participant observation is mixed with interviews (Clark, 2003).

Ethnography comes originally from anthropology and refers to close-up detailed study of the institutions and customs in small, well-defined communities in societies with little technological advance. This is usually done by observing at close quarters or even joining in that culture (to a limited extent), examining cultural artefacts and so on. (Just to confuse the issue a little more, the outcome of such cultural analysis is also referred to as an ethnography, that is, the documented account is the ethnography as well as the process of collecting the data.)

The term ethnography evolved in the 1980s to embrace a wider meaning and is generally used to refer to the detailed study of small groups of people (for example, in factories, classrooms, hospitals, ‘deviant’ subcultures) within a complex society. It covers the kind of research topic that was more popularly known as ‘qualitative sociology’ during the 1960s and 1970s. Ethnography, as a style of research, uses a wide range of methods of data collection, including in-depth interviewing (Chapter 4), life histories, personal document analysis and discourse analysis (see Chapter 6), as well as non-participant and participant observation.

Ethnography, thus, tends to refer to a style of research of which participant observation, in its broadest sense, is the main method. Indeed, it is not unusual to see the two conflated in the literature, for example:

Ethnography or participant observation adds a unique dimension to qualitative research by observing and interpreting the social meanings of the everyday lives and actions of the target population. (Power, 2002)

However, for some people, the difference between ethnography and participant observation is that ethnography does not necessarily have to include a participant observation element; it can be done exclusively through non-participant observation and unstructured interviews. For others, (Brewer, 2000) the essence of ethnography is its attempt to explore the social meanings of the research subjects through close study. For others, ethnography is characterised by a prolonged, intensive immersion into a (sub-) culture. Again, much participant observation takes this approach although participant observation research is not always designed to explore subject’s perspectives or to be of lengthy duration.

In practice, there is a high degree of overlap betwe

en the terms ethnography, participant observation and qualitative research: the latter is a catch-all term intended to cover approaches that focus on capturing non-statistical evidence.

Next 3.2 Aspects