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 2012–2019

Page updated 25 January, 2019

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2019, 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 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

3.3 Methodological approaches

3.3.2 Phenomenology and observation Observation as a means of discovering how communities operate
Examining communities rather cross-cuts other phenomenological uses of observational or ethnographic research. The study of a culture, be it an anthropological study of tribal life (such as Malinowski 1922, 1954) or a sociological study of a small town, (Blumenthal, 1932) or a geographic study, inter alia, is about, exploring social processes and organisations, how work and leisure are undertaken, how social order is maintained and how social interaction is framed. It usually involves observation along with a host of other methods and is often interdisciplinary and eclectic in its intention.

Community study as a methodology usually involves the intensive study of a relatively small number of cases often employing some form of participation in, or close observation of, the activity of the community. Community study also tends toward practical applications rather than purely theoretical perspectives.

Colin Bell and Howard Newby (1977, p. 19) maintained that a community study is concerned:

with the study of the interrelationships of social institutions in a locality. This does not mean all social institutions locally present have to be studied but unless these interrelations are considered they will not considered as community studies.

This implies that a community is geographically located and in face-to-face contact rather than a dispersed community using virtual contact. The Bell and Newby definition excludes research that fixes on a single social institution in a community setting, such as a family. Thus, Young and Willmott's (1957) studies of family life in Bethnall Green would not be a community study.

It has been argued that community studies are neither possible nor desirable. The first problem is the lack of a definitional consensus. Second, in practice, community studies are non-comparable and non-cumulative. Third, micro-studies will not provide a view of the whole society because the sum of society is greater than the parts. Fourth, the 'community' tends to be a product of the researcher's engagement and may not reflect a real integrated 'community'. The method, it is argued, tends to lead to the expected results, as researchers find the community bonds and networks they expect to see.


Next 3.3.3 Critical Social Research and Observation