How to do an observation
Segment 29 & 30 - PSYCHSCI
Types of Observations
Structured Observation
Semistructured Observation
Observations in experiments
Unstructured observation such as an ethnography (observational
study of cultural practices)
• Self-observations such as diaries
Gathering information within an observation
• Use structured observation grids to narrow what you are looking
for (related to the aim) – Orange book p.46
• What behaviors are considered aggressive for a preschool child?
• Are those behaviors different by gender?
• Three types of sampling for the grids
• Time sampling: sample at pre-determined times
• Event sampling: record only a specific set of events (details of prom
• Point sampling: observe one participant’s behavior, then move on to the
next participant
Gathering information within an observation
• Data-gathering devices
Still camera
Hand-written notes (coding on the spot)
• Creating a code system (increases inter-rater reliability)
• Create codes for most all common activities (Coolican p.121-122)
Reliability in observations
• Inter-rater reliability (multiple researchers observing the same
thing) decreases researcher bias
• Inter-rater reliability can be measured with a correlation
Participant v. non-participant observations
• Participant advantages
• High ecological validity
• Reduces participant expectancy
• Increases reliability & validity
• Participant Disadvantages
• Ethical concerns (covert)
• May not blend in enough to avoid
participant expectancy
• Non-participant disadvantages
• Easy informed consent & low
ethical concerns
Naturalistic observations
• Advantages
• Ecological validity is high
• Very detailed accounts
• Disadvantages
• Ethical dilemmas if covert
• Time-consuming, which reduces the # of participants
Covert v. Overt observations
• Advantages of Covert
• Less participant expectancy
• Disadvantages of Covert
• Ethical issues with deception
• Advantages of Overt
• Less ethical issues
• Best if long-term to make
participants comfortable
• Disadvantages of Overt
• Increases participant expectancy
Setting up and carrying out an Observation
• Step 1 – choose goal(s)
• Exploratory goals
• Descriptive goals
• Evaluative goals
• Step 2 – learn about the topic with a thorough study of
appropriate literature
• Step 3 – defocus (empty your mind of pre-conceived notions)
• Reduces researcher bias
• Allows for self-knowledge to increase reflexivity (personal knowledge? Bias?)
Setting up and carrying out an Observation
• Step 4 – research site
• Choose and set up based on three factors
1. Choose site/participants who will give richest data
2. (for ethnography) unfamiliar site w/o prior expertise increases credibility
3. Safe and physically accessable
• Step 5 - Decide on researcher role
• Participant?
• Covert?
• Naturalistic?
Setting up and carrying out an Observation
• Step 6 – gaining access to participants
• Gatekeepers (authorities who can provide access) are useful
• Informants (people that can translate information or behaviors) are vital
• These people might have bias!!!!!!
• Step 7 – climb the access ladder
• It takes time to get people to open up
• Step 8 – build rapport
• People must feel like sharing
Setting up and carrying out an Observation
• Step 9 – create thick descriptions (detailed accounts of setting and
context as well as what happened)
Reduces observer bias
Embrace serendipity (que sera sera, what will be, will be!)
Rigorous noted increase credibility
Separate your facts and inferences
Write the notes ASAP to avoid memory decay
Write analytical memos when you make choices while in the observation
Make maps and diagrams to visually explain setting
Make a reflexive journal to note personal bias and feelings
Setting up and carrying out an Observation
• Step 10 – post-observation duties
• Discuss findings with key participants to verify
• Increase ethics and credibility
• Check & recheck interpretations with other researchers
• Increases inter-rater reliability
• Debrief participants