Return to:   The Observational Method
The observational method of research concerns the planned watching, recording, and analysis of observed behaviour as it occurs in a natural setting.

The Observational MethodThe observational method is a non-experimental design. The absence of an independent variable does not allow any cause-effect conclusions to be drawn from observational research. Sound evidence is however important to the observational method. Indeed, the observational method's key feature is a standardised, planned, and systematic approach to objectively observe and record behaviour. This is of course to generate all-important data upon which to base any conclusions. Observations, which can be overt or covert, are of five main types. We have participant observation, non-participant observation, structured observation, unstructured observation and naturalistic observation. Each involves the planned gathering, analysis, and interpretation of mostly empirical data on observed behaviour. Each observation has its own features, advantages and disadvantages. Participant observation, for example, sees the researcher set up, and take part in the observation of behaviour under investigation. Non-participant observation sees no involvement on the part of the researcher, with recordings of observed behaviours being taken from afar. The observational method has both advantages and disadvantages as a research design in psychology. Covert observations can be problematic regards ethics and disclosure. Confounding variables also plague observations. These are infinite, and include observer bias and the observer effect. If the researcher plans, structures, and conducts their observation appropriately, the observational method can be seen as a most valid and reliable form of non-experimental research in psychology mainly due to the observational method's high ecological validity.

Type of Observational Method
Naturalistic Observation
  • Particularly good for observing specific subjects.

  • Provides ecologically valid recordings of natural behaviour.

  • Spontaneous behaviours are more likely to happen.

  • Ethics: Where research is undisclosed consent will not be obtained, where consent is not obtained - details may be used which infringe confidentiality.
Structured Observation
  • Allows control of extraneous variables.

  • Reliability of results can be tested by repeating the study.

  • Provides a safe environment to study contentious concepts such as infant attachment.

Unstructured Observation
  • Gives a broad overview of a situation.

  • Useful where situation/subject matter to be studied is unclear.
  • Only really appropriate as a "first step" to give an overview of a situation / concept / idea.
Participant Observation
  • Gives an "insiders" view.

  • Behaviours are less prone to misinterpretation because researcher was a participant.

  • Opportunity for researcher to become an "accepted" part of the environment.

  • Observer effect.

  • Possible lack of objectivity on the part of the observer.
Non-Participant Observation
  • Observer is detached from situation so relies on their perception which may be inaccurate

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