Observation is a systematic data collection approach.  Researchers use all of their senses to examine people in natural settings or naturally occurring situations.

Observation of a field setting involves:

  • clearly expressed, self-conscious notations of how observing is done
  • methodical and tactical improvisation in order to develop a full understanding of the setting of interest
  • imparting attention in ways that is in some sense 'standardized'
  • recording one's observations

Participant Observation

Some researchers draw a distinction between participant observation and observation.  This distinction is murky. 

Participant observation "combines participation in the lives of the people being studied with maintenance of a professional distance that allows adequate observation and recording of data" (Fetterman, 1998, pp. 34-35).

Participant observation underscores the person's role as participant in the social setting he or she observes.  The range of roles one may play as a participant observer have been describe by Gold (1958), Adler and Adler (1984) and others. 

Bernard (1998) suggests that participant observation must be learned in the field.  However, he identifies serveral skills associated with participant observation.  Click here for more.

For a more developed discussion of the distinction between observation and participant observation see Savage (2000) and for a discussion of participant observation as a methodology see Jorgensen (1989).

When might observation be used?

There are a variety of reasons for collecting observational data.  Some of these reasons include:

  • When the nature of the research question to be answered is focused on answering a how- or what-type question
  • When the topic is relatively unexplored and little is known to explain the behavior of people in a particular setting
  • When understanding the meaning of a setting in a detailed way is valuable
  • When it is important to study a phenomenon in its natural setting
  • When self-report data (asking people what they do) is likely to be different from actual behavior (what people actually do). One example of this seen in the difference between self-reported versus observed preventive service delivery in health care settings.
  • When implementing an intervention in a natural setting, observation may be used in conjunction with other quantitative data collection techniques.  Observational data can help researchers evaluate the fidelity of an intervention across settings and identify when 'stasis' has been achieved. 

Non-Participant Observation

Non-participant observation is observation with limited interaction with the people one observes.  For example, some observational data can be collected unobtrusively (e.g. worn out carpet as indicators of high use areas in a physical setting). 

Researchers who study how people communicate often want to examine the details of how people talk and behave together.  Non-participant observation involving the use of recording devices might be a good choice. 

This data collection approach results in a detailed recording of the communication and provides the researcher with access to the contours of talk (e.g. intonation) as well as body behavior (e.g. facial expression, eye gaze).  Even a great observer cannot record these aspects in detail.  

Non-participant observation may provide limited insight into the meaning of the social context studied.  If this contextual understanding is important, participant observation might be needed.  These two data collection techniques can complement each other and be used together.

Observing by video or audio recording

If people are to be observed in a closed setting, the researcher is not a participant observer, and tape- or video-recording is permissable then this data recording approach may be appropriate (e.g. physician-patient encounters). 

Choosing to tape-record of video-record a setting will depend in large part on what is permissable in that setting.  There are, however, a few things to keep in mind:

  • Decisions regarding how to record observational data depend largely on the focus of the research question and the analytical approach proposed.
  • If the researcher is trying to understand how people behave together and the people in question can see each other, then the use of video may be recommended.  This is because of the important role that bodily-based behavior plays in our social processes.  Without this visual information, the researcher may not fully understand what transpires (e.g. physician-patient encounters).  Additionally, capturing the details of this behavior in fieldnotes will be difficult.
  • Audio-recording a telephone counseling session makes sense because the two interactants (and the researcher) only have access to verbal communication.
  • Audio and video recordings afford the researcher the opportunity to transcribe what occurs in a setting and play it over and over.  This can be very useful in the analysis process.


Participant observers may use multiple methods to gather data.  One primary approach involves writing fieldnotes.  There are several guides for learning how to prepare fieldnotes

Researchers may be interested in creating or using a template to guide a researchers' observations. 

  • Templates or observational coding sheets can be useful when data is collected by inexperienced observers
  • Templates or observational coding sheets should only be developed after observation in the field that is not inhibited by such a template
  • Theories and concepts can be driven by templates and result in focused data collection
  • Templates can deflect attention from unnamed categories, unimagined and unanticipated activities that can be very important to understanding a phenomenon and a setting 


Immersion and prolonged involvement in a setting can lead to the development of rapport and foster free and open speaking with members. 

Observation fosters an in depth and rich understanding of a phenomenon, situation and/or setting and the behavior of the participants in that setting. 

Observation is an essential part of gaining an understanding of naturalistic settings and its members' ways of seeing. 

Observation can provide the foundation for theory and hypothesis development.



Adler, PA and Adler, P. (1987). Membership roles in field research. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Atkinson, P. & Hammersley, M. (1994). "Ethnography and participant observation." In NK Denzin and YS Lincoln (Eds.) Handbook of Qualitative Research (pp. 248-261). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publication.

Bernard, HR. (1988). Research Methods in Cultural Anthropology. (pp 152-160). Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Bogdewic, SP. (1999). "Participant Observation" (pp. 47-70). In BF Crabtree and WL Miller (Eds.) Doing Qualitative Research (2nd Edition). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Creswell, JW. (1998). Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design Choosing Among Five Traditions. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Fetterman, DM. (1998). Ethnography Step by Step (2nd Edition). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Gold, R. (1958). "Roles in sociological field observation."  Social Forces, 36, 217-213.

Jorgensen, DL. (1989). Participant Observation: A Methodology for Human Studies. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Hammersely, M. and Atkinson, P. (1995). Ethnography Principles in Practice (2nd Edition). NY: Routledge.

Holloway, I. (1997). Basic Concepts for Qualitative Research. London: Blackwell Science.

Lindloff, TR. & Taylor, BC. (1995). Qualitative Communication Research Methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Lofland, J. & Lofland, LH. (1995). Analyzing Social Settings. (3rd Edition). NY: Wadsworth Publication Company.

Savage, J. (2000). "Participative observation: Standing in the shoes of others?" Qualitative Health Research (10) 3, pp. 324-339.

Silverman, D. (2001). Interpreting Qualitative Data. (2nd Edition). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

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