Observation: Definition, Methods, Pros & Cons

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What is Observation?

Observation is one of the best data collection methods used by sociologists. It is a technique that involves systematically selecting. watching and recording the behavior and characteristics of subjects of a study in order to accomplish the objectives of the research exercise by a researcher.

The use of observation is not limited to any polemic research methodological approach in sociology. The length of the observation period depends on the satisfaction of the observer with the amount of data and information required to draw a conclusion on the topic of research. It can last for months or years.

Methods of Observation

Observation can be participatory or non-participatory.

1. Non-participatory observation

In this method, the observer watches the situation, openly or concealed, but does not participate. For example, an observer can watch, study, and take data or information about a group of protesters or market women without joining the group in their activities.

Observation can give additional, more accurate information on the lifestyle of research subjects than interviews and questionnaires.

2. Participant observation

This is a method of observation where the observer takes part in the situation being observed. Using the example stated earlier, the observer will, in this regard, join the group of protesters or the market women for a deeper understanding and easier collection of data.

In many circumstances, sociologists find it necessary for the observer to get into the activities of those being studied in order to be accepted. Participant observation is the main method of data collection in ethnographic studies. Branislaw Malinoski's study of the Trobriand Islands is an example of an ethnographic study where participant observation was adopted as the data collection technique.

In this method, researchers may choose to be overt participant observers, where they declare their true identity and purpose, or covert participant observers, where the fact that they are researchers is not revealed.

For instance, a criminologist may pretend to be a criminal and study in prison in order to carry out research using the participant observation method. This can be done where the awareness of the researcher's presence by those being studied can hinder the data standard because people can decide to stop acting naturally in the presence of an outsider.

But this idea is contrary to the ethic of informed consent in sociological research. To solve this, it is believed that, even though people can stop acting naturally after knowing the presence of an observer, as time goes on, like within three to six months, they forget about it and return to their normal way of life. In this case, the observer will be able to carry out research.

Advantages of Observation

  • It provides the researcher with the best means of obtaining a valid picture of social reality in its natural setting.
  • It ensures data validity and reliability because it is difficult for people being studied to lie or mislead the researcher.
  • Participant observation allows the researcher to get the subjective views of the subjects of research.
  • It is the best means of studying interaction.
  • It promotes the objectivity of the research process.
  • It is useful for testing and developing new hypotheses and theories.
  • Participant observation has the great advantage of bringing about a high level of ecological validity for a study.

Disadvantages of Observation

  • The method takes a lot of time.
  • It can only be employed for the study of a very small group; therefore, an untypical form of generalization cannot be made.
  • There is risk in doing it because the researcher may be prone to physical and psychobiological danger depending on the activities of the group being studied.
  • It is difficult to compare the findings of this nature with those of other studies because they cannot be replicated. It is not scientific.
  • The observer has the power of imposition, which can lead to manipulation in the research process.
  • The validity of the findings may be faulty, especially when people decide to change their usual way of life throughout the course of the study.


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