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
3.4 Access

3.5 Recording data

3.5.1 Introduction
3.5.2 What data to record
3.5.3 How to record data
3.5.4 Writing up your observations

3.6 Analysing observational or ethnographic data
3.7 Summary

3.5 Recording data

3.5.2 What data to record
The data that you record as an observer depends on the purpose of the research. Having said that, when you first undertake observational research you may find that it is quite difficult to know what to makes notes about. How much detail do you record? Do you record all conversation? Do you describe all the actions?

If, for example, you are observing a group of three people hanging around in a shopping centre and fourth person comes up and joins them, do you simply write that ‘a fourth person joined the group and was greeted by the other three and immediately joined in the conversation’ or do you describe in detail what happened? You might write something like this: ‘a fourth person, a black male who looked about 16, dressed in a t-shirt, jeans and trainers, confidently approached the group and greeted each in turn by slapping palms. The group seemed to be expecting the arrival of this fourth member, and immediately included him by asking him questions about where he had been. The conversation, which had been rather intermittent, became much more lively and animated’.

There is no easy answer to the question of how much you include. It depends on two interrelated things. First, what you are trying to find out, and second, how far your research has got. If you know exactly what you are looking for then you only have to make notes about those things you observe that are, for example, directly relevant to the hypotheses you are testing, or add nuances to your interpretation of meanings. For example, in the case above, if the research is at an early stage and is concerned with the interactions within the group and the way in which hierarchy is established, then you might want the full description. If, on the other hand, you are interested in specific group activities, such as how they behave as sports supporters, the initial meeting prior to going to an event may be of peripheral interest and so a short note might suffice.

However, the very nature of much observation research (especially participant observation) is that you are trying to find out what is relevant from the subject’s point of view. So it often takes a long time before you are able to say what is relevant and what is not. The more research you have done on your subjects, the easier it is to decide what is relevant.

When you are first starting the research it is preferable to include as much detail as is feasible. For example, Elliott (1972) took the view that nothing is irrelevant when he undertook his study of the Making of a Television Series. However, you cannot possibly note everything that happens and everything that is said. You have to be selective. So what do you select? You should be guided by your general research aims and broad hypotheses (see Section 1.14).

The second example account about the group, above, is not a comprehensive description but it does indicate the way that the fourth person became part of the group, the type of greetings that occurred (handshake, hug, nods, etc.) and the way that the fourth person integrated into the group. This is important if you are trying to determine things such as group leadership, integration, tensions and so on. The first, short, description provides insufficient information for any initial appreciation of how the group works, while the second one gives you some preliminary clues.

Observation studies vary enormously in length, from a few months of fieldwork to several years. Typically, published participant observation studies (monographs) are the result of between six months and two years’ fieldwork. As the study progresses the amount of detail that it is necessary to record might be reduced. For example, after watching several interactions you might simply say that ‘X was dressed as usual’ and only make notes on dress when a significant change in style, which might point to some form of ‘leadership’ via fashion-consciousness, occurred. Similarly, you might only note forms of greeting that were significantly different from normal and that might, for example, suggest the break-up of the group. However, you will not know what to omit or what is ‘normal’ until you have developed a substantial knowledge about the group. This will not occur until you have spent a lot of time observing, either as a non-participant or as a participant.


Next 3.5.3 How to record data