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 Observation as a descriptive tool Observation as the exploratory stage for further quantitative research Observation for triangulation Observation to refine or evaluate policy interventions
.3.1.5 Observation as a means of deriving hypotheses, building models or refining theory

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

3.3.1 Positivism and observation
At heart, positivism is suspicious of observation as a tool for testing theory. Outside the controlled realm of the experiment, positivists are uncomfortable that observation provides sufficient, accurate, valid, reliable and, therefore, generalisable material to be able to confirm or reject hypotheses (Sections 1.8, 1.9, 1.10). The concern is that observations of the social world are essentially opportunistic, not necessarily representative of social phenomena because the observer (or even group of observers) have to operate in a dynamic setting where it is hard to control variables.

Furthermore, it is hard to ensure that an observer overcomes any subjective bias as a result of preconceptions and records observations objectively.

When more than one observer is involved on a research team there are also concerns about whether the observers are observing the same thing in the same way.

We have seen (Section 1.7) that the issue of subjectivity and objectivity is in itself problematic and that to presume that observation is inherently subjective whereas statistics or responses in a questionnaire are objective is fallacious thinking. Nonetheless, there is a reticence for those who wish, ultimately to construct causal analyses, to set great store by field observations; that is, observations undertaken in uncontrolled settings.


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