Observation in Qualitative Research

Observation is one of several forms of data collection in qualitative research. It involves watching and recording, through the use of notes, the behavior of people at the research site. In this post, we will cover the following

  • Different observational roles
  • The guidelines for observation
  • Problems with observation

Observational Roles

The role you play as an observer can vary between two extremes which are

nonparticipant to participant observer. A nonparticipant observer does not participate in any of the activities of the people being studied. For example, you are doing teaching observations, as you sit in the classroom you only watch what happens and never participate.

The other extreme is a participant observer. In this role, a researcher takes part in the activities of the group. For example, if you are serving as a teacher in a lower income community and are observing the students while you teach and interact with them this is participant observer.

Between these two extremes of non-participation and participation are several other forms of observation.  For example, a a non-participant observer can be an observer-as-participant or a complete observer. Furthermore, a participant observer can be a participant-as-observer or complete participant. The difference between these is whether or not the the group being studied knows the identity of the researcher.

Guidelines for Observation

  • Decide your role-What type of observer are you
  • Determine what you are observing-The observation must support what you are trying to learn about the central phenomenon 
  • Observe the subject multiple times-This provides a deeper understanding of the subjects
  • Take notes-An observer should of some way of taking notes. These notes are called fieldnotes and provide a summary of what was seen during the observation.

Problems with Observation

Common problems that are somewhat related when doing observations are observer effect, observer bias, observer expectations. The observer effect is how the people being observed change their behavior because of the presence of an outsider. For example, it is common for students to behave differently when the principal comes to observe the teacher. They modify their behavior because of the presence of the principal. In addition, if the students are aware of the principal’s purpose, they may act extra obedient for the sake of their teacher.

Observer bias is the potential that a researchers viewpoint may influence what they see. For example, if a principal is authoritarian he may view a democratic classroom with a laid back teacher as chaotic when the students may actually be learning a great deal.

Observer expectation is the observer assuming beforehand what they are going to see. For example, if a researcher is going to observe students in a lower income school, he will expect to see low performing unruly students. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as the researcher sees what they expected to see.


Observation is one of the forms of data collection in qualitative research. Keeping in mind the types of observation, guidelines, and problems can help a researcher to succeed.

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