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 2012–2020

Page updated 29 April, 2020

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2020, 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 Observation for theory generation: emergent theory Observation for theory development: a naturalistic perspective Observation as a basis for identifying subjects' meanings Subject's point of view Ethnographic critiques of the possibility of grasping subects' meanings Observation as a basis for empathetic interpretation Observation as the basis for deconstructing everyday life Observation as a process of establishing identity Observation as a means of discovering how communities operate

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

Activity 3.3.1
Activity 3.3.2

3.3 Methodological approaches

3.3.2 Phenomenology and observation Observation as a basis for identifying subjects' meanings Subject's point of view
Some researchers argue that the naturalistic setting alone is not enough. The research is only naturalistic when it sets out to discover the subject's point of view. Participant observation enables the researcher to experience the natural setting at first hand through being directly involved. By being part of the group the researcher is able to appreciate the meanings that the members of the group have about the activities they are involved in and the world in which they live. The researcher, by being part of the group, is able to develop awareness of the relationship between the actions of the subjects, their values and norms, and the constraints of organisational procedures that affect the subject group. The researcher comprehends the meanings in the same way as the subjects themselves

Activity 3.3.1
Undertake a similar study to that in Student Activity 3.2.1 but, this time, join the group (become a participant observer) and see if you are able to provide a better understanding of the group interaction and the meanings of the events for the members of the group.

NOTE: The comments on recording data as a non-participant observer also apply to the participant observation situation. (Only attempt this activity if you are comfortable about becoming a member of the group. You might prefer to study a group of which you are already a member. You will also find that this is a time-consuming but rewarding activity.)


In this formulation, participant observation is generally about the researcher acquiring knowledge of social phenomena from the point of view of the subjects. Instead of imposing concepts, frames of reference and values on an understanding of the social group; the researcher acquires these from the subject group. For example, Blanche Geer (1964) noted in 'First Days in the Field', that most of the preconceptions participant observers start their research with are overturned very quickly once in the field. Referring to her study of medical students, she noted that during the planning stage she was bored with the thought of studying undergraduates (see CASE STUDY: Changing perceptions).

Activity 3.3.2
Re-examine the observations you made for Student Activity 3.3.1 What preconceptions did you have about the group and the way it was organised? To what extent did your initial observation lead you to reconsider those preconceptions?.

Critical review. Time: 30 minutes


The intention is to achieve an understanding of what the social processes and actions mean for the people involved in them. This may result in descriptions of actions and an interpretation of what they mean for the actors. Or it may involve a much fuller attempt to understand the social world of the subjects and the place that the actions or social processes have within it.

Attempting to capture the meanings that people apply to their own world is also referred to as interpreting the 'symbolic world' of the research subjects. Grasping subject's meanings is a gradual process as the researcher begins to generate interpretations of activities and speech that more closely reflect those of the research subjects.

This gradual process is also referred to as sequential analysis (Becker, 1971) and it is a very similar process to that described by Whyte (1949) in his conventional positivistic observation study: it involves projecting an interpretation and gradually refining it until the meaning is grasped. Unlike Whyte, who suggested, in theory, that one sought out falsifying instances, the sequential-analysis approach prefers to evolve an interpretation by refining first impressions. Ethnographic critiques of the possibility of grasping subects' meanings
However, in the 1980s in cultural anthropology and in the 1990s in sociology, ethnographers turned on their own practice and criticised ethnographic interpretations of social reality and subjects' meaning. They asked questions about how ethnographic data could be evaluated. According to Denzin and Lincoln (1995) the data collection method, the data themselves and the impact of the author undermined the 'validity' of what was supposed to be an accurate re-presentation of the nature of the natural world.

Instead of claiming that (participant) observation approaches provide a privileged account of social reality from the naturalistic or subjects' viewpoint, (a view described by Hammersley (1990, 1992) as naïve realism) there was a backing off by some well-established ethnographers, in the wake of the irrationalism of 1980s postmodernist thinking, to a position that sees all accounts as reconstructions, which makes it is meaningless to speculate which is most accurate.

Indeed, the sometimes-heated methodological debate, about what is the most valid approach, is an intellectual exercise that bears little relevance to the exegeses of real-world research. The real issue is not whether an insider view is privileged (that is, better than other views) but that it provides an alternative view.

From a critical social research perspective (see Section 3.3.3) the debate is incidental: critical social research regards all data as evidence, which it situates in a wider social-historical context.

Despite this introverted critique, observational approaches continue to be used to explore subjects' meanings.

For example, Costello (2001) undertook a study of elderly patients. He explored the experiences of dying patients and nurses working in three elderly care wards. The sample consisted of 74 patients, 29 nurses and 8 physicians and the principle data collection methods were participant observation and semi-structured interviews. All respondents were observed and then the observation data was used to direct the semi-structured interviews. The dual approach allowed an evaluation of the extent to which convergence or divergence of the data was taking place. Older patients pose tremendous problems and challenges to nurses and doctors in providing good terminal care. The focus was on the meanings of dying and the research showed a lack of effective communication about terminal diagnosis and the strategies used by nurses and doctors for disclosing information about death and dying. There was a lack of 'emotional engagement' with the patient. The research showed that although nurses provide individual care to dying patients, much of this was aimed at meeting patients' physical needs. Nurses reported psychosocial aspects including spiritual and emotional care to be important, although there was little evidence of them being orientated towards this in practice. The study suggests that 'hospital culture and the mores, beliefs and ideologies that emanate from the biomedical model, significantly shape the experiences of older dying patients' (Costello, 2001, p. 59).


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