Social Research

Fourth edition

by Sotirios Sarantakos

Chapter 10 - Observation

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Educational objectives
After completing this chapter, you will:
  1. have acquired knowledge about the nature and diversity of observation and its usefulness as a method of research;
  2. have knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of observation as a method of data collection;
  3. be familiar with the differences between observation and other methods of data collection;
  4. be able to employ observation in practical situations in the various forms it appears in social research;
  5. be in a position to assess the nature and quality of studies employing observation and a critical reader of relevant research findings.


  1. Types of observation
  2. The process of observation
  3. Participant observation
  4. Physical observation
  5. Ethical issues
  6. Strengths and weaknesses of observation
  7. Preventing errors in observation
  8. To sum up

Points to remember

The following are the major points introduced in this chapter. Ensure that you are very confident with their meaning, content, context and significance.
  1. Observation is the method of data collection that employs vision as the only technique of collection.
  2. There are several types of observation, for example, naive, scientific, participant, non-participant, structured, unstructured, natural, laboratory, open, hidden, active, passive and direct and indirect observation.
  3. The steps of the research model employed in observation are similar to those of the standard model introduced earlier in this volume.
  4. Sampling procedures in observation are similar to general procedures in this area.
  5. Given the nature of the method, the observer is expected to be well qualified and have the required skills.
  6. As a method of data collection, observation appears in a number of ways, for example, as continuous observation, time-point observation, time-interval observation and event observation.
  7. Observation is a unique method that can be employed in areas where other methods are unsuitable and therefore offers several advantages.
  8. In studies of physical traces researchers examine traces to learn about those who created the traces.
  9. Problems of observation can relate to a number of issues, for example, the observer, the purpose of observation, the tools used, the categories of observation and the expectations of the researcher.
  10. There are several ways of preventing and controlling errors and problems affecting observation.

Short-answer questions

Answer each question carefully (there is no need to write down the answer). Consult your Social Research text when your memory fails you or when you are in doubt about the accuracy of your responses.
  1. Describe briefly the nature and purpose of observation and its relation to other methods of data collection such as surveys and indirect methods.
  2. Describe the differences between naive and scientific observation.
  3. Explain the differences between participant and non-participant observation.
  4. Describe the differences between structured and unstructured observation.
  5. In what ways is natural observation different from laboratory observation?
  6. In what sense can observation be open or hidden?
  7. Show the differences between active and passive observation.
  8. How can observation be direct or indirect?
  9. What steps does the process of observation include?
  10. In what ways are the process of topic selection and research design in observation different from the steps of the research process applied in social research?
  11. What are the required skills an observer should have to be effective and to avoid problems and distortions?
  12. What kind of issues does the training of observers usually include?
  13. How does the process of data collection take place when observation is used as the method?
  14. What is the most effective way of recording data in an observation situation?
  15. What are the main advantages and limitations of observation?
  16. What are the major problems of observation?
  17. In what ways can the observer be a source of problems?
  18. In what ways can the purpose of observation become a source of errors?
  19. What are the areas in which observation can be most effective in social research?
  20. How can problems of ethics and objectivity be controlled in observation?
  21. How is the study of traces employed in the area of social research? Give examples.
  22. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the study of traces?
  23. In what ways are the process of topic selection and research design in observation different from the steps of the research process applied in social research?

Fill-in questions

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True/false questions

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Multiple choice questions

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Practical exercises

  1. It is suspected that illegal drugs are being smuggled in some way into the local gaol, and government authorities are eager to find out how. Survey research and other means available have proven inadequate, and it has been decided that participant observation might be more effective in shedding some light on this area.
    a) Prepare a research design to show how such a study will be constructed, including details about collection, analysis and evaluation of data.
    b) What measures will be taken to assure adherence to ethical standards?
  2. Explain how the study of traces can help study domestic violence. Develop a research model to explore this issue.
  3. A company manager reported that in an open-room office where eight employees are working, conflicts and problems are quite common. As a result, staff morale and work output have been reduced significantly.
    a) Design a research model using observation as a method to find out more about the problem, its course, causes, extent and real consequences.
    b) What measures will be taken to assure adherence to ethical standards?