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
3.3.3 Critical social research and observation Introduction Critical ethnography Observation to deconstruct culture Observation to deconstruct myths Observation in critical community studies

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

3.3 Methodological approaches

3.3.3 Critical social research and observation Introduction
For critical social researchers, observation is a method of obtaining empirical evidence, with no more or less credibility than any other evidence-gathering approach. Critical social researchers are not particularly concerned with the debates about the status of observational data: is it objective, valid, reliable, authentic? Can one generalise from observational data? The key to critical research (as noted in Section 2) is that it situates evidence in a socio-historical context and relates it dialectically to wider social structures.

Critical social researchers tend to use observation:

to deconstruct culture, for example to show how cultural adaptations are made that counter or accommodate structural formations, processes or inequality: : including people's connivance in their own oppression;

to provide insights and rich description of social phenomena, which provide a basis for digging beneath surface appearances (see Critical Social Reearch Chapter 1.6) and aid in debunking myths, unravelling inconsistent presuppositions and taken-for-granteds;

as part of multi-technique critical community studies

The use of observation by critical social researchers is often referred to as critical ethnography.

Although there are variations in the work of critical ethnographers, the core is to use first-hand data to enable an analysis or evaluation of prevailing systems and structures. For critical social researchers, unlike for some phenomenologists, meanings are not important in themselves.


Next Critical ethnography