Descriptive Observation and Experiment

  1. Non-systematic Observation
  2. Systematic Observation
  3. Indirect Methods of Recording an Activity
  4. Experiment
En Español  In Finnish   Contents

Observation means studying and gathering information on an activity: of what happens, what your object of study does or how it behaves. Observation is visual: you use your own eyes, perhaps assisted with a camera or other recording instrument. Descriptive observation means that you do not wish to modify the activity in any way, you just want to register it such as it would take place without your presence.

An activity can interest a researcher because all professions and all industrial production are essentially chains of activities. Besides, the product itself can be a process of activities, such as a computer program, course of education, drama or other presentation on stage or on TV. Also when the product is a static object with no action of its own, its use is an activity that you perhaps will want to study in its empirical setting.

There are many activities that can be difficult or expensive to study especially in their original setting "in the field", and before starting an empirical project it can be advisable to spend a minute in considering whether the information that you need could be reachable without direct empirical operations. Such methods might include:

If these approaches, however, seem fruitless and you have concluded that you have to gather your data with empirical observation, one of the first questions to resolve is the extent of your empirical material. There are two decisions that you have to make:

  1. Demarcate the study by asking yourself which is the set or the entire multitude of those cases of activity where you want to say that your future findings are true? It is often more or less identical to the set of cases where your findings shall be applied if such application is foreseeable.
  2. If the entire set defined above is too large to be studied, you can select a sample from it, from which you then will collect empirical data.

Once you have at least a preliminary idea about the extent of your project, you can begin to consider the method of observation. A good starting point is to recall what you already know about the activity that you are going to observe. It is usually advisable to start from the knowledge that you already have about your object, and then conclude which data you need to collect. In this way you can focus your inquiry to just the missing pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. Besides, the more you know - or can assume - about the context where the activity presumably will take place, the better you can plan the arrangements and methods for catching exactly the right data.

Production One of the most efficient tools for designing the method for empirical study is a theoretical model which defines how various characteristics of the object and its context associate with each other. This model should include the characteristics that you want to record from you object of study, and besides so much of their context, their causes or effects that you can design the best time, place and arrangement for the empirical operations.

On the right you can see a few examples of models of activities, often used in research projects. The topmost one depicts industrial production and is made of quantifiable variables. The lower one lists four qualitative models often used in social psychology.

Some sociological models of human activities and their contexts
Script: the subconscious model according to which a person tries to act.
Social episode, a typical situation recurring in people's behaviour.
Behavioural setting is a place (for example: a classroom, a church, a bank counter) where people act in conventional ways.
Institution: a permanent organization of society which includes people, procedures and location.
Alas, it is not always easy to find or to design a suitable model for a study. Sometimes you can adopt and improve a model from an earlier published research report, sometimes you can construct a tentative one on the basis of the target of your project. But it happens also that you have to postpone its construction until you get better acquainted with the object of study.

Three usual alternatives for the use of models are explained on the page Models in the Research Process. In short, they are:

  1. Exploratory research means that you have found no good model nor theory to base your work on, though you perhaps will be able to create a model later as your project proceeds, on the basis of your first disorganized observations. Because you initially have no basis for defining which questions you should record from the activity, the only possible method for you will often be Non-systematic Observation.
  2. Research on the Basis of Earlier Model: you can use an existing theoretical model as a starting point though you probably will want to modify it during your empirical study. The initial model makes it possible to choose which aspects in the activity and its context shall be recorded. In other words, you can use the method of Systematic Observation which is usually more efficient than its non-systematic variant.
  3. Hypothesis based Study. Your starting point is a credible theory and a hypothesis that asserts that a certain cause (or "stimulus") produces - at least usually - a certain effect ("reaction"). The target of your project is to verify the hypothesis. The most simple and effective method for this is usually to arrange a series of experiments where you only observe and record two characteristics of the activity: the stimulus and the reaction.

Beside the existence of a model, other factors that have to be noted when selecting a descriptive research method are the target of the study and the nature of the activity to be studied. These come into surface especially in the following questions:

All the above mentioned viewpoints that can affect the selection of the method of observation are shown compressed in the following table:

Style of research: Exploratory research Research as Revision of a Model Hypothesis based Study
Possible method: Non-systematic Observation Systematic ObservationExperiment
...but when selecting the method, be aware of the following viewpoints, too:
Setting:Field Usually field Laboratory
ManipulationNo Possibly Always
Can an assistant do the work?No Yes Yes
What to do with unforeseen findings?Register and study themRegister or exclude Exclude
Type of data?Any typePreferably exactly defined data Exactly defined data, often quantitative
Possible to adjust definitions?YesYes, but try to avoid it No

Although the table contains only three distinct methods, there is always the possibility of combining elements from these methods or of modifying them.

Note that the table above contains no indirect research methods, nor normative observation which is discussed on another page.

Non-systematic Observation

If we have to study an existing activity that we initially know nothing of, already common sense tells us that it is best to start by just watching what happens, and try to learn the structure of the actions, even if it might take some time. We can find ourselves in such a situation, for example, when starting to study life styles in a community that is foreign to us. A beautiful description of this kind of method is given by Lewis Mumford, in The Culture of Cities (1938):

"The first survey of a city should be cursory and random: taking in what one sees and what happens in no particular order... One should first float passively in a sea of impressions... Only after a general immersion in the urban scene, should one attempt to explore it systematically... But Wordsworth's injunction should be remembered...: "Think you, ... that nothing of itself will come, but we must still be seeking?" A wise passiveness is an important counterpart to intense activity, and research can never dispense with the need for contemplation."

The method described above is certainly as non-systematic as you can think. It avoids all the preconceptions about the observed activity and is thus sensitive and likely to discover all the relevant factors. However, it has the disadvantage of taking a lot of time as the researcher has to observe quite a number of incidents before he or she can construct a theoretical model of the action and start reporting it. So the method should be used only when such an exploratory style is really called for; that is, when you study something that has not been studied earlier.

What is typical of non-systematic observation is that in advance you specify only in general terms which activities are to be recorded but leave the details open. You may then additionally include any other incidental factors that you deem necessary to describe or explain the activity. These additional notes might describe e.g. unusual environmental factors or extraordinary disturbances and, above all, such unforeseen factors which can explain the activity going on.

Sometimes you can start by studying one single specimen or case which illustrates the problem of study, and then you continue studying a gradually growing number of objects until it becomes apparent that your material is "saturated" and there are no more such cases that would differ from those that you already have recorded.

The principal researcher is often the only one who can extricate the significant findings from observations because only he/she can judge which details are important and which can be ignored. In the same time he/she can start building a preliminary model from those patterns which seem to recur often, or estimate how well an earlier known model fits the observations.

As soon as the invariance in the data becomes apparent you can omit all the material that is no longer relevant and compress the remaining, relevant information. This compacting is usually done with the help of coding the typical and frequent elements, that is by assigning short names, letters or other symbols to them.

Exploratory observation is essentially abstraction and generalization. Abstraction means that you translate the empirical observations, measurements etc. into concepts; generalization means arranging the material so that it disengages from single persons, occurrences etc. and focuses on those structures (dynamic invariances) that are common to all or most of the cases. There is often no clear borderline between observation and analysis of the collected data.

The reports from non-systematic observation normally include various kinds of information, for example qualitative descriptions of the circumstances like lighting, weather, disturbances etc. If these are lengthy, it becomes difficult to write them down during the observation; in that case the writing can be postponed until after the observation period. However, you should always complete the notes before starting the next stage of observation; otherwise the more recent set of impacts will superimpose the older ones in your mind and observations will be recorded in the wrong place. If the activity is complicated, you might consider recording it on video and completing the report later, using the recording as evidence.

Participant Observation. If the people you are observing regard themselves as a group, sometimes you might try to act as a group member and try to participate in their normal activities. It is up to you to evaluate how much this will, in turn, change the behaviour of the people you are observing.

Consulting-type Observation. When observing people you would often like to hear their own ideas about what they are doing and why, because it could help you to understand the activity going on. You could simply ask the people that are being observed, but there is the risk that the discussion alters the activity. This risk will be smaller if you avoid asking questions while the activity is going on, and instead you in advance ask them to think aloud and "explain to themselves" what they are doing and why it must be done this way. When this instruction is given before the activity begins, we can hope that it will not too much alter the activity. This variant of consulting-type observation goes by the name contextual inquiry.

It can happen that the researcher cannot stay silent all the time, because the observed person may forget to verbalize his or her thoughts. When this happens, the investigator usually gives a prompt which is as neutral as possible, for example, "What do you think of it now?"

There are several variants of consulting-type observation. One is the strategy of "master-and-apprentice" where the researcher adopts the role of an ignorant pupil who needs to get simple explanations of everything that the master does.

Another possibility is to combine observation and thematic interview where all aspects of the activity - its purpose, alternatives, improvements etc., - can be taken into discussion. If the objectives of the study include developing the activity itself, you may consider making use of the standard list of questions of methods engineering. When the people in action explain how they interpret the thing they are doing and what are the reasons of their behaviour, you can get a deeper view of the activity and its relationships, but the price will be that the activity may stray away from its original pattern.

Once the preliminary report from consulting-type observation exists, it would fit well to the style of this method that the report is discussed together with the person that was observed.

Systematic Observation

Quite a usual situation when starting a research project is that you already have some knowledge of what is going on and of the objects that are involved, and you have defined the question to be studied. On this basis you can then specify what to look for during the observation. This means that when starting the systematic observation you know and have written down two things,

Starting from the scenario, you can design the observation methods in such a way that you obtain records of only those actions, attributes, or variables that are included in your problem or hypothesis. Everything else is superfluous and should not be recorded.

In order to cut out unnecessary information, you can use one of the two methods of sampling:

TallyAs all the interesting variables and attributes are well known in advance, and you also know all the values they may have, you are able to produce a detailed reporting sheet with empty spaces for all those facts that you want to register.
If you only want to get the number of certain occurrences, a good method is a tally or a checklist, see the figure on the right. An alternative would be encoding all the alternatives; in this case the observer just needs an empty paper to put down the appropriate codes (which he/she has to memorize).

As observation always takes a great deal of time, the researcher often hires one or more assistants, or observers, for this task. To ensure uniform reporting, the observers should receive written instructions as to what to look for and how to report it; perhaps they are also given reporting sheets or checklists. The observers should also be trained for the task, and they should have some observation practice before the final recording is started.

Professional work researchers often use pocket size computers in which a key for every variable and parameter can be programmed in advance. The date, the time and some other variables can be automatically registered. In this way, transferring the data for analysis will be many times easier than by picking it up from questionnaires.

If, besides the number of events, you also need to record some of their attributes, tallying will not work very well. Encoding is a viable alternative, as you can then assign separate codes for each of the necessary attributes. Or, if you prefer using a pocket computer, you may dedicate some of its keys to indicate the various attributes of the events.

For registering the details of complicated or fast action, video recording is better than photography, because the flash and the sound of the camera may cause considerable disturbance. It is also possible to take pictures with an automatic camera which fires at intervals (time lapse photography). The disturbance caused by the researcher will be omitted then; although mere pictures without any notes are usually rather difficult to interpret.

StoryboardThe rich details of videos and photographs are useful in documenting, but often quite a nuisance in analytical research. One method to diminish detail is to transform the images to drawn pictures, for example in the format of storyboard or "comic strip" (like the one on the right by Keinonen, 2000, p. 217).

On the other hand, one good use for both photography and video is that the researcher will be able to go over the action with the person in the picture and ask him to explain his actions and motives in detail.

Degree of Manipulation

The general objective of observation is to record the activity in its natural state, so ideally the researcher should not interfere with the activity. Especially when you want to observe people you should be aware that already the knowledge that they are being observed is likely to alter their behaviour, let alone if the situation is once and again altered by new instructions from the researcher.

Not only active manipulating but also passive presence of a researcher can influence the activity to be studied, especially when we study human activities. Observers usually try to minimize this effect by behaving as unobtrusively as possible. Some have tried to hide behind curtains or mirror glass walls. A method sometimes used to minimize the effect of researcher's presence is to do the recording with a fixed video camera without the direct presence of researchers. Vries et al. report that participants talk then more freely, at least about emotional and pleasure-related topics. Another way to diminish disturbance is to arrive on the spot some time before the observation begins; this way the initial curiosity of the test subjects has time to settle down.

Even though there are many tricks that you can use to avoid disturbing the activity that you should study, sometimes you cannot avoid this. The most common reason for researcher intervention is that the activity which should be studied would in its natural state occur very infrequently, if it were not somehow provoked to happen. When studying human activities, the necessary incentive is normally created so that the researcher simply asks people to start the activity to be observed.

Usually manipulation means that the researcher provides a stimulus which is hoped to launch the activity that is to be observed. In this way you get data more quickly, and you have better possibilities to avoid disturbances. All this helps to economize on time and cost.

A stronger type of manipulation occurs when an assistant enters the research situation and carries out a pre-defined task that serves as a stimulus to the participants who are kept ignorant of the manipulation. The principle in this method resembles that of an experiment and entails some ethical considerations, too.

Another element in the procedures of observation that is often manipulated, is the setting or context of the activity. By alternating various characteristics of the environment you can study their possible influence on the activity.

A disadvantage in manipulation is that it can spoil the validity of the results. This happens if the activity gets too much affected because of the contrived manipulation. When studying human activity the person to be studied often notes that the situation is feigned and reacts unnaturally, and a similar aberration is possible when observing a physical process, too.

Indirect Methods of Recording an Activity

Self-reporting or "experience diary" is a method which manages without the presence of a researcher. Instead, the researcher asks the people to report their own actions on a questionnaire that he has prepared for this purpose.

The questionnaire usually contains a page for each day, with printed questions that depend on the information that the researcher wants to get. If the study concerns how the day has been used or at which hour certain operations have been done, the page can be a subdivided in hours. As an alternative, if only certain type of occurrence is of interest, there can be empty boxes for reporting just these, with relevant questions to be answered. For example, there can be a set of questions to be answered always when coming back from a car ride.

To get more particulars from certain episodes, one possibility is to give the respondent not only a questionnaire but also a cheap no-refill camera and instructions on when to use it.

Self-reporting is an easy and cheap method. It has also several advantages: it eliminates the disturbance caused by the presence of the researcher, and it can capture infrequent events in inaccessible places, like the use of a laptop computer during a journey, and also unwelcome events such as accidents.

The problem of self-reporting is its doubtful reliability and the fact that the subjects' motivation is seldom high enough to report a great amount of data. Note that the duties of respondents include not only filling in the questionnaires, but also afterwards assisting the researcher to decipher their daily markings and photographs, when made.

Indirect or unobtrusive methods have been devised in order to avoid unwanted changes in the activity to be studied. These methods circumvent the presence of a researcher for the observation of what happens, or they postpone the research until the process to be studied has been ended. These methods include:

A drawback in these usually is that the data do not quite accurately represent the phenomenon that the researcher is interested in. The data can be hard to come by, and they do not always include the information the researcher would need. Advantages are that the action will not change because of the research going on, and it is possible to study activities that have taken place already long time ago.

En Español  In Finnish   Contents

August 3, 2007.
Comments to the author:

Original location: http://www2.uiah.fi/projects/metodi