Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-18, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 24 January, 2018 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2018.


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core definition

Naturalistic is a term applied to methods of social enquiry that attempt to grasp the 'natural' processes of social action and interaction.

explanatory context

Such procedures are also sometimes referred to, confusingly, as 'naturalism' but this should not be taken to infer the principles of naturalism.


Ethnographic methods in general, and participant observation, in particular are often regarded as naturalistic methods. They are seen as naturalitic because they attempt to collect information from social settings without creating artificial situations (such as an interview or experiment) and by minimising the degree to which the researcher impinges on the social setting.


The naturalistic approach thus elimiates the often artificial and distorted nature of more formal research situations and, it is argued, places the researcher in a better position to interpret social actions in their own context, hence improving ecological validity.


In some cases, the naturalistic setting alone is not regarded as sufficient. Some commentators regard ethnographic methods as naturalistic only when used in a way that attempts to uncover the meanings and conceptual frames of the subjects.


Critics of naturalistic approach, such as Goldthorpe (2000) argued that naturalistic ethnography fails to accept that the social world exists independently of our ideas about it (cf phenomenology) thus is unable to make inferences about the world beyond the data at hand. For Goldthorpe (2000, p. 67) this failure of the logic of inference renders ethnography impotent. In essence, this approach says that ethnography can only be applied usefully to a positivistic approach if uses probabilistic samples

analytical review

Colorado State University (1993–2013) defines:

Naturalistic Inquiry: Observational research of a group in its natural setting.

University of Strathclyde (undated) explores naturalistic observation:

Naturalistic observation is observation carried out in real-world settings: it is an attempt to observe things 'as they are', without any intervention or manipulation of the situation itself by the researcher. This has been described as a 'pure' or 'direct' observation (Punch, 2009, p.154), which can be contrasted with observation carried out as part of experimental research in which the researcher actively intervenes and contrives the conditions of the context being investigated. Miles and Huberman (1994) give a very full account of the features of 'naturalistic research'. It involves 'intense' study of a real-life situation; the researcher attempts to create a 'systemic, encompassing, integrated' overview of the context; and the researcher tries to acquire an 'empathetic understanding' of the situation as perceived by 'local actors' as if 'from the inside' (Miles & Huberman, 1994, p. 6).

Naturalistic observation is a broad category of methods which can take a range of forms of recording, which in one way or another involve the use of words to construct some kind of record of events observed. For example, an observer may attempt to keep a simple 'running record' of as much detail of what is happening in a particular situation over the duration of the observation, or a researcher may try to maintain a diary of events or behaviours observed over a more prolonged period of observation. In diary methods the researcher relies to some extent on their memory of events and clearly this means that diaries, to some degree at least, provide a selective account of what has been observed.

Punch (2009, p. 179) stated:

In naturalistic observation, observers neither manipulate nor stimulate the behaviour of those whom they are observing, in contrast to some other data gathering techniques. The situation being observed is not contrived for research purposes. This is pure or direct or non-participant observation, in contrast with participant observation...

associated issues


related areas

See also


participant observation

Researching the Real World Section


Colorado State University, 1993–2013, Glossary of Key Terms available at, accessed 3 February 20135, still available 24 December 2016.

Goldthorpe, J., 2000, On Sociology. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Miles, M.B. and Huberman, A.M., 1994, Qualitative Data Analysis: An expanded sourcebook. Thousands Oaks, CA: Sage.

Punch, K., 2009, Introduction to Research Methods in Education, London: Sage.

University of Strathclyde, undated b, 'Advantages and disadvantages of observation', available at, accessed 17 March 2013, 5, page not available 24 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2018

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