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
3.4 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 Coding notes

3.6 Analysing observational or ethnographic data
3.7 Summary

Activity 3.5.1

3.5 Recording data

3.5.4 Writing up your observations
It is important that you write up your observations in detail as soon as possible. A golden rule is 'never sleep on your observations'. Write up your data in detail before you go to bed because you will not recall things as clearly the next day, let alone days later. This requires a lot of self-discipline. It means that however late in the day your observations are concluded, and irrespective of other things you want to do, it is crucial that you take the time to write up the data.

Writing up may involve writing longhand, typing onto a computer or dictating notes into a recording device for later transcription. Make sure that your notes explain the circumstances of any recordings you have made of subjects. Make sure you write up before going out for the evening (especially if you are going to drink alcohol) or before going to bed.

Observation research requires a substantial time commitment. Not only is it time-consuming doing the observation, writing up what you have observed can also take many hours.

It helps if you write up observations in a systematic way:

  • Always put a heading on the notes that says where, when and between what times the observations were made.
  • Also note down when you wrote up the observations. Put a list of people observed at the top.
  • You will probably use coded names to identify people because you may not know their names (if you are a non-participant) or because you will want to conceal the subject's real identities for purposes of confidentiality.
  • It is a good idea to keep your comments on what you observe separate from the actual observations. For example, you might write the observations in black ink and your comments in red; or put comments in square brackets if typing up the observations or use a different colour or style of font.
  • Where you use abbreviations, or substitute names, or use codes to refer to events or behaviour, make sure that you keep a glossary or key so that you will know what you meant when you go back to your notes later.

Top Coding notes  
It is a good idea, if possible, to record your observations electronically (making sure that you keep back-up copies). The reason for this is that it is easier to rearrange and sort your material when it comes to analysing it (see also Section 3.6). There are a variety of qualitative database and analysis packages that can be used to aid the researcher and these are constantly being augmented and upgraded (see Section 3.6.2). In essence, though, these packages require that data extracts are coded (in various ways). While able also to search the databases quickly and do complex sorts, the process of evolving an understanding of the data using such packages still requires the intellectual work of the researcher.

A short extract from Filby's (1989) field notes of betting shops (CASE STUDY Example field notes), shows one way of coding the data. Each day's notes were recorded on a wordprocessor document file and then a copy of the file was divided into 'event strips'. Each strip contains a heading that identifies the kind of event observed. For example, the extract from his notes for 13 April 1989 shows events relating to 'staff–customer conflict', 'work culture' 'non-work-related conversation', 'people: company staff' and 'employment recruitment and training'. All these different themes appeared in one day's notes.

From an examination of the detailed data in the strips Filby was able to identify ways in which sexuality and gender were involved in the betting shop work-place. For example, a major aspect that emerges from his study is the way in which the female staff, although trained and capable of doing the more technically demanding jobs in the shop (notably settling the bets), collude with the work-place culture that sees women's role as entertaining the (predominantly) male punters and conceding to males on technical issues. The 'superiority' of males, in this respect, is something both punters and male staff take for granted. You can see this issue emerging in the brief extract from the notes.

Activity 3.5.1
Make arrangements to shadow someone in their job for a day. Note carefully what activities they engage in and the interactions they have with other people. See if you are able to get an idea of what the person you are shadowing takes for granted and how she or he makes sense of the work situation.
WARNING: This is a time-consuming exercise and you may not be able to attempt it. However, it can be very informative if undertaken.


Next 3.6 Analysing observational or ethnographic data