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Types of Observation in a Research Study

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One of the most effective ways to learn about human behavior is through the use of observation. Observations allow the researcher to view the behaviors of others in a variety of settings. During a research study, both direct and unobtrusive observations are used. Though scientific, observations do not require the use of a hypothesis, or proposed idea.

Direct Observation

Using direct observation is both positive and negative. It allows the researcher to be up close and personal with the subjects. A common form of direct observation is that between an employee and a manager. The downside is that the subjects are aware that they are being watched. This often leads to problems with accuracy of data. Subjects may react to being watched or they may act in ways they feel is expected of them by the observer. Direct observation is usually done in a controlled environment to manipulate the variables.

Unobtrusive Observation

Unobtrusive observation varies from direct in that subjects are unaware that they are being observed. This is typically done in the field, having the observer posing as a member of the group of subjects. This type of observation is controversial, however, because it is believed to be unethical in that it violates the privacy of the subject. This type of observation is very time consuming. For data collected to be valid, multiple samples are taken over a large span of time. This is tricky to control because the same subjects are not always available over lengthy time spans.

Observational Variables

There are three variables used when observing for research. Descriptive variables involve the researcher writing down exactly what she sees. Inferential variables require the researcher to make inferences about what is being observed. The problem with inferential variables is they are open to interpretation by the observer. A third type of variable is the evaluative. Evaluative is a combination of descriptive and inferential. It uses both an inference and a judgment by the observer.

Tips to consider

When making observations, the more detailed your notes, the better. Be certain to note the setting and the moods of all subjects. Sensitive social issues work best with direct observation. Phenomena needs to be measurable to be observed accurately, so choose your topics well. Surveys make excellent additions to direct observations.


Having settled in Lousiana, Michele Domingue has been writing product opinions and short stories since 1999. Her stories have been published in several "Chicken Soup for the Soul" books. Domingue holds a Master of Science in psychology from University of Phoenix.