Orientation Observation In-depth interviews Document analysis and semiology Conversation and discourse analysis Secondary Data Surveys Experiments Ethics Research outcomes



Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2017

Page updated 29 May, 2017

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2017, Researching the Real World, available at
All rights belong to author.


A Guide to Methodology

3. Observation

3.1 Introduction
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 of aspects

3.3 Methodological approaches
3.4 Access
3.5 Recording data
3.6 Analysing observational or ethnographic data
3.7 Summary

3.2 Aspects

3.2.7 Focus of observation

Some studies focus on a single issue, others explore a range of issues, often predetermined by the research brief. Sometimes there is a core research topic and this is explored from a variety of angles. For example, Samantha Punch’s (2003) study of childhood in the ‘third-world’ was based on an ethnographic study of rural childhoods in an economically poor and relatively isolated subsistent farming community of 68 households in Tarija, southern Bolivia. The fieldwork was conducted during short-term regular visits over two years followed by a six-month period (1996–97) when Punch lived with two different households in the community:

I used a variety of qualitative methods including classroom-based tasks, participant observation, and informal and semi-structured interviews with most members of a sample of 18 households. Both adults’ and children’s perspectives were sought, although children’s views were the central concern. The research at the community school consisted of 37 children aged 8 to 14 years writing diaries, taking photographs, drawing pictures and completing worksheets. (Punch, 2003, p. 279) .

Similarly, although a case study of a small town, Sally Sainsbury’s (2000) study focused on the specific issue of how the community dealt with learning difficulties.

Sometimes new aspects emerge from the observation as important features to include in the research. Sometimes the research is holistic, taking into account the whole setting. Community studies of small towns (such as the study of Banbury (see Section tend to take a holistic approach. This may be linked to an inductivist approach, hoping the data will speak for itself, that is, the interpretation will emerge from interrogating the data. Alternatively, the holistic approach may be about evolving the research dialectically as the observations are related to wider social structural and historical context.


Next 3.2.8 Summary of aspects