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
3.3 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
3.5 Recording data
3.6 Analysing observational or ethnographic data
3.7 Summary

3.3 Methodological approaches
Observation is a method of undertaking social research and can be used within a variety of epistemological and methodological approaches (Section 2). Although participant observation, for example, is often closely linked to interactionist approaches in sociology, it is by no means restricted to interactionism. As with any research method, it is the purpose and underlying philosophy that determines how the observational evidence is framed and used: for example, to provide descriptive data, to explore or develop theory, or to evaluate policy and practice.

Positivists use observation research:

• as a descriptive tool;
• as the exploratory stage for further quantitative research;
• for triangulation;
• to refine or evaluate policy intervention;
• as a means of inductively deriving hypotheses to be tested by more ‘rigorous’ data collection;
• as a means of testing hypotheses in the controlled environment of an experiment (see Section 9).

Phenomenological approaches tend to use observation:

• as a basis for generating theory;
• to test theory;
• to identify subjects’ meanings;
• as a basis for empathetic interpretation;
• as a means of deconstructing everyday life;
• as a process of establishing identity;
• as a means of discovering how communities operate.

Critical social researchers tend to use observation:

• to provide insights and rich description of social phenomena, which provide a basis for digging beneath surface appearances;
• as evidence in the process of deconstructing social structures and aiding understanding of social formation;
to deconstruct culture;
to deconstruct myths;
in critical community studies.


Next 3.3.1 Positivism and observation