Chapter 6: Data Collection Strategies

6.2.3. Observational Research

Observational research seeks to explore an aspect of the world, for a variety of purposes (Patton, 2015).  While that opening sentence may seem a bit vague, many of us, on a regular basis, undertake observational research, without thinking about. For example, imagine yourself undecided as to which airport security line you should take.  You might stand back for a second to see which one appears to have the least number of people in line, which one appears to be moving the fastest, or which one appears to have less children in line. You use your observations to help you decide which line you should take, as you are a bit pressed for time.

From a research perspective, undertaking observational research, is usually one aspect of an overriding research project.  It is rarely a stand-alone method of data collection. For example, perhaps you are interested in nutrition in high school cafeterias.  You would likely distribute a questionnaire to students regarding their normal cafeteria choices.  You might also do some student interviews; however, your research would not be complete without standing back and watching the food choices students make in the cafeteria.  In this example, you would not want the students to know you are watching them, because they may make different choices than they normally would, due to your presence (see section on Section 8.6 re social desirability bias).  When your research participants do not know they are being observed, such as the high school nutrition example, it is known as covert research.  Of course, observing in a covert fashion has ethical challenges (e.g. not securing participants consent to be observed).  In contrast to covert observation, when participants know and give their approval (usually, although not always) this is known as overt observation.

According to Patton (2015), there are three aspects of observer involvement: strictly as an observer, strictly as a participant, or as both observer (covert and overt) and participant.  One of the most infamous covert participant observational studies is that of Humphreys (1970).  The study involved covert observation of homosexual encounters in public washrooms.  Humphreys published his findings in a book that later went on to win the C. Wright Mills Award, one of the most prestigious book awards for sociological research and writing.  Today, the awarding of this award to Humphreys is almost as controversial as the study itself.  If you are interested in learning more about observational research, Patton (2015) provides an excellent in-depth discussion of this method.