What is an Observational Research: Steps, Types, Pros and Cons

Observational research refers to qualitative and non-experimental studies that seek to systematically observe, record, and analyse a particular society, culture, behaviours and attitudes. It is non-experimental in its observation as it does not manipulate any variables.

observational research examples

The steps are undertaken in conducting Observation research usually include:

  1. Deciding upon the goals of the study
  2. Deciding upon the group to be observed
  3. Choosing a type of observation method to employ
  4. Earning access to the group
  5. Establishing a rapport with participants
  6. Conducting the study by observing and recording behaviour, attitudes and beliefs over a specific time period
  7. Exiting the observation research setting
  8. Analysing data that was recorded
  9. Writing the report and presenting the findings

(Bailey, 1994)

Observational Research is typically dichotomized on the basis of  :

Degree of Structure of the Environment:

  • Naturalistic (or “nonparticipant”) observation: This type of observation is employed in a natural setting wherein the subject is observed simply as it exists by an external observer. The subject could range from group dynamics to a case study of a particular tribe, attitudes towards gender in a university etc. Sociologists typically use this type of observational research to study cultural practices, belief systems, social customs and taboos of a social group.
    • Participant observation : this type of observation research falls under naturalistic observation as it is employed in a natural setting. It calls for a researcher to (either covertly or overtly) participate or immerse themselves in the setting they are studying, becoming a part of the community they are observing and make inferences through their experience. Overt participation implies that the participants aware that they are being observed and studied while covert participation implies that a researcher will act as a member of the group, they are studying without others knowing that they are a researcher. One of the first recorded employments of this method was in the early 19th century by Joseph Marie who sought to understand Native Americans by becoming one of them stating that, “it is by learning their language that we will become their fellow citizens (Gaille, 2020)”.
    • Controlled Observation: When an environment needs to be confined to a structure, a researcher will use a controlled observation design. This  is a type of observation research that is employed mostly in psychological research and in the field of marketing. Controlled observation serves as an exception to the non-experimental criterion of observational research, for this method observes behaviour in a controlled laboratory setting. An ‘un-controlled observation’ simply implies a naturalistic observation employed in an unstructured environment.

Degree of Structure imposed upon the environment by the researcher

  • Structured observation: This type of observation employs a specific framework for observing, categorizing, and recording behaviour.
  • Unstructured Observation:  This type of observation implies the absence of a specific framework that dictates when, how and what behaviours must be recorded. It alludes to an open-ended approach to a subject in which the researcher records almost everything he observes, sifting through the data at a later stage.

Other types of Observation research include:

  • Indirect observation: In a case where the researcher isn’t able to conduct their research in the natural setting of their subject, they must resort to conducting indirect observation. This is the most non-invasive method of research where the researcher will gather primary information by employing techniques in physical tracing such as erosion measures. Erosion Measures refers to studying materials and their condition in order to make conclusive findings; For instance, a researcher may study the floor of a museum to see which exhibits are most popular. Social anthropologists and archaeologists may employ this type of observation research to draw conclusions about historical societies.
  • Direct Observation: The opposite of indirect observation, direct observation, would encompass many of the aforementioned types of observation research including naturalistic and participant observation.

Observation research, irrespective of type, come with a plethora of advantages and disadvantages as described below.


  1. In-expensive: Observational research is relatively in-expensive to conduct as researchers need minimal resources to conduct their observations and no variables can be controlled or manipulated. The sociologist simply observes an already existing phenomena like interest group dynamics or a particular society within its natural setting, hence does not have to allocate many resources to conduct their observation.
  2. Flexible: Observational research boasts several types within the natural/participant dichotomy such as overt/ covert participation, case studies and archival research allowing one to choose an outline the best suits their research question.
  3. Greater Ecological Validity: Ecological Validity refers to the real-world application of a studies’ findings: and since observation research takes place in a natural setting, all observations are made ‘from the real world’ leading to greater ecological validity than other methods of research that are conducted in experimental or laboratory set ups where participants may provide inaccurate self-reports of their own behaviours. Observation research eliminates the discrepancy between reported and enacted behaviours by observing the actual behaviour in action.
  4. Allows change to be recorded: Observing a subject within its natural setting can help researchers capture changing attitudes and mobile dynamics of the subject. For example, if a sociologist is studying the dynamics within a multi-ethnic society, they have the opportunity to watch opinions and attitudes of each social group evolve and change. The researcher will be able to identify recurrent behaviours as well as ones that occur by chance
  5. Open-ended: Observational research is usually semi-structured, allowing the researchers to work freely within a larger framework. Researchers are free to observe and analyses a plethora of things and the flexibility/ open-endedness of this style of research allows researchers to adapt their research to accommodate more observations that are of value to their research such as interesting phenomena that complement a groups behaviour which researchers did not originally intend to study. This feature would allow a sociologist, for example, to record a new behaviour or attitude of the social group he is studying and include it into his study as it may lend to the research.
  6. Some advantages exclusive to Participant Observation include:
  • Options: Researchers can choose to participate either covertly or overtly, choosing one role that is best suited to the nature of their work. A researcher may choose to study a tribe in the amazon overtly but may choose to study group dynamics within an intersectional environmentalist group by participating in that group disguised as a member. Both of these options lend a sufficient amount of descriptive information for analyses.
  • An Inside look into a society or phenomena: Observational research permits researchers to study people in their native environment in order to grasp the subject of their study in manner that would not be understood otherwise. Non-verbal cues and unfiltered responses are recorded in grave detail in a covert participant observation. For instance, if a researcher is observing gender dynamics in a co-ed high school, he will be able to gather information about attitudes and perceptions through gossip exchanges, glances and other non-verbal cues which may not naturally come out if the participants were in a laboratory setting.
  • More detailed observations: Spending a great deal of time immersed in a community, social group or culture yields highly specific and ethnographic information. Some researchers spend years living with a society or involved in a social group and this allows them to record, with significant detail, the intricacies of that society or social group.

Also Read: Sampling Methods


  • Small scale: Observational research is most often conducted on a small scale and hence may lack a representative sample which consequently compromises the generalisability of the observations. Researchers may adopt a longitudinal focus while studying, for example, one particular community college. The information found on the students in this community college will be highly specific to that college and not generalizable to all.
  • Less reliable: Since observing a phenomenon in its natural setting comes with the presence of innumerable extraneous variables which cannot be controlled, the study is not easily replicable and less reliable than other methods of research including controlled observations. For example, field research may come with a number of variables out of the researchers control including the weather, a group dispute, conflict etc.
  • Cannot establish cause and effect relationships: The lack of control the researcher has over the phenomenon being observed makes it significantly difficult to establish causal factors and resulting behaviours. The observations begin to become more descriptive instead of analytical and no significant inferences can be made that can allows for prediction.
  • Researchers must be highly skilled & Knowledgeable: Researchers must be skilled and trained to recognise facets of a situation that are sociologically significant. Depending on the nature of research, the Observation method calls for the researcher to adopt one or more roles and depend on several techniques, such as observing with all five senses, in order to gain a comprehensive understanding of the subject being studied. Researchers often spend years doing secondary research, learning a new language and familiarising themselves with a culture in order to participate.
  • Time : Observational research is most often time consuming. Researchers choose to spend several months, sometimes years observing the subject of their research in order to gain a comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon that they are studying. As mentioned above, researchers also spend several month planning, researching and preparing for field research.
  • Observer-bias: One of the biggest and most recurring issued in observational research is that of Observer bias. Since social reality is relative, observations may end up reflecting a number of biases possessed by the researcher. Several components such as personal beliefs and preferences can cloud a researcher’s perception and his observations may reflect their biases. Researchers often have a hypothesis which may could judgement and make the researcher see only what they want to see in order to confirm their hypothesis. Observation bias is hence, extremely dangerous in the way that it greatly compromises the validity of the results.
  • Hawthorne Effect: The behaviour of those being studied is often influenced by the presence of the research which is why covert participation is often preferred by many. Consequently, observations and inferences may blur the actual phenomena leading to inaccurate results.
  • External & Distanced observation: Observations are often made from a distance and this could hinder a comprehensive understand of the subject being studied for the researcher may not be able to see or hear any significant events or exchanges. In naturalistic observations, the researcher cannot clarify or inquire into anything being observed, they may only record and subjectively analyse their observations. This leads to non-objective inferences. Furthermore, the only way a researcher conducting a naturalistic observation can get the whole picture is to record data through images, videos and audio recordings which pose a multitude of ethical consequences.
  • Difficulty recording: In a participant observational research, the researcher may experience trouble taking notes and providing written accounts of their observations, which often leads to them relying on their memory to reproduce an observation on paper. This can lead to inaccurate observations that may reflect an observer’s bias.
  • Access: Gaining access to a particular community or social group is challenging if those comprising those groups are not willing to be studied. Several societies, tribes and social groups are physically inaccessible and may be closed off to outsiders.
  • Ethical issues : Covert participation prompts a wide variety of ethical complications as participants of the study are unaware that they are being observed, their behaviours recorded and analysed, hence unable to give consent. Informed Consent being one of the most important aspects of any study, raises a multitude of ethical questions about covert participation observations.
  • Microscopic: Most observation research gathers only situation-specific data and is of relatively minimal use (because of its low generalisability and small representative sampling) to the greater body of sociological research. Studying Native Hawaiian approach to gender will yield inferences that are exclusive to the indigenous community of Hawaii and won’t add greatly to existing literature. If a sociologist or researcher, however, chooses to spend more time studying other indigenous communities’ approach to gender, which were colonized such as the Maori community or Native Americans, this can contribute greatly to sociological research but again calls for a significant amount of time to be spent on observation.
  • No statistical representation of data: Unless the research design employs a mixed methods approach, most observation research is entirely qualitative and results cannot be represented statistically. Observational research does not allow questionnaires or surveys hence cannot any quantitative data.

Also Read: Qualitative and Quantative Methods

Observation research comes with a myriad of advantages and disadvantages. Obviously, not all pros and cons listed above apply to every research project but several do and it is important to note that this research method must be tailored to the phenomena that you want to study. Each research question will call for a different approach and the observation research style can be moulded to satisfy the studies’ research objectives.


Gaille, Louise. “21 Advantages and Disadvantages of a Participant Observation.” Vittana.org, 3 Feb. 2020, vittana.org/21-advantages-and-disadvantages-of-a-participant-observation. 

McLeod, S. A. (2015, June 06). Observation methods. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/observation.html

Ciesielska, Malgorzata, et al. “Observation Methods.” Qualitative Methodologies in Organization Studies, 2017, pp. 33–52., doi:10.1007/978-3-319-65442-3_2.

Baker, Lynda M. “Observation: A Complex Research Method.” Library Trends, vol. 55, no. 1, 2006, pp. 171–189., doi:10.1353/lib.2006.0045.

Bailey, K. (1994). Observation in Methods of social research. Simon and

Schuster, 4th ed. The Free Press, New York NY10020. Ch 10. Pp.241-273.

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Shivanka Gautam is a student at FLAME University, studying Psychology and Literary & Cultural studies. She has a passion for Critical theory, Cultural Affairs, Political Philosophy and Academia.