Field observation is a qualitative research method that involves researchers entering a setting to make structured research observations. Those recorded observations are then coded and used to collate themes in your research project.
Dantzker and Hunter define field observation as below:
“Field observation consists of observing individuals in their natural setting.” (Dantzker & Hunter, 2006, p. 217).
As with most qualitative research methods, field research is best used for descriptive research. It is more concerned with explaining what it observes using thick description methods than identifying the relationships between variables or quantifying data.
Types of Field Observation
Tayie (2005) classifies field observation into four quadrants along two dimensions:
- Participation: Degree to which the researcher participates.
- Observation: Degree to which observation is concealed.
Of course, this framework assumes there are participants – which could be humans or animals. Some studies – such as archaeological digs – won’t fit neatly onto this graph.
Visually, the quadrants end up looking like this:
Each quadrant is explained below:
- Quadrant 1 – Overt Observation. The researcher acts as a fly on the wall, not participating in the field. They will take notes as observers, not participants. The participants know you are there observing them. (Dantzker & Hunter, 2006)
- Quadrant 2 – Overt Participation. This involves engaging with the people in the field, but they know you are the researcher. This, on the surface, comes with less ethical concerns, but may cause research participants to change their behavior (known as the Hawthorne Effect).
- Quadrant 3 – Covert Observation. The researcher acts as a fly on the wall, not participating in the field, and ensuring they are not seen by the research participants (Tayie, 2005). This can prevent the participants from changing their behavior, helping to reduce the Hawthorne effect. However, observation of participants without their knowledge or consent may violate research ethics.
- Quadrant 4 – Covert Participation. This involves engaging with the people in the field covertly, with them believing you are simply a participant like they are. They do not know you are a researcher. This method comes with ethical concerns that need to be addressed prior to entering the field (Dantzker & Hunter, 2006).
Field Observation Example
1. An Education Example
2. A Social Anthropology / Psychology Example
3. A Sociology Example
4. An Anthropology Example
Advantages and Disadvantages of Field Observation
|Field Observation Advantages||Field Observation Disadvantages|
|Helps to Develop a Hypothesis (Pilot Study): Observational reseasrch is often very useful for generating hypotheses. This is because they are a form of descriptive research – meaning they help us to understand a topic better (Tan, 2022). With deeper understanding, we can then proceed to creating an informed and thoughtful hypothesis about what’s been observed (Morgan et al., 2017). This would be followed-up with a cause-and-effect study where variables are controlled and tested. Studies that end with a hypothesis rather than beginning with one are often called grounded theory.||Lack of Control over Variables: Unlike experimental designs, field research takes place in a natural setting where there is a high chance of external environmental factors impacting the observed events (Gall, Gall & Borg, 2014; Wang, Bolland, & Grey, 2015). This means that you’re unlikely to be able to infer direct cause and effect between two variables, simply because there are so many uncontrolled variables in the setting. (See Also: Experimental vs Observational Studies)|
|Doesn’t Rely on Research Participants’ Input: Field research, while often paired with interviews, doesn’t require them (Tayie, 2005). This means you can merely observe without requiring research participants to actively provide input (verbal, survey, etc.).||Lack of Generalizability: As with most qualitative research, the findings tend not to be generalizable to broader populations or other settings (Tayie, 2005; Wang, Bolland, & Grey, 2015). This is because there is no control over the variables and to small of a cohort of research participants for statistical relevance to occur.|
|Takes Place in a Natural Setting: Research that takes place in natural settings can help to render high-quality insights that are contextualized ((Tayie, 2005), able to observe possible extraneous factors that were unexpected but observed by researchers, and can mean that research participants are acting as naturally as we’d expect them to (especially if you’re covert – see: Hawthorne Effect).||Hawthorne Effect: The Hawthorne Effect refers to the effect of research participants changing their behavior when they know they’re being observed (Sedgwick & Greenwood, 2015). This serves as a challenge for overt observation and overt participation. This is even more pronounced when the participants know exactly what your study is about, so giving cues about what you’re observing (known as demand characteristics) may need to be curtailed.|
|Allows for detailed, nuanced, and contextualized explanations and descriptions: One of the benefits of observational research is it has a broad and holistic focus – nothing’s off limits in the study. This is in contrast to experimental design, which just tends to focus on a narrow hypothesis (Gronmo, 2019).||Experimenter bias (triangulation required): Observational research is always prone to experimenter bias because, even though we’re trained researchers, every researcher will pay attention to or be drawn to different aspects of the study (Tayie, 2005; Wang, Bolland, & Grey, 2015). Not only does this decrease replicability of the study, but it can also introduce the idea that the experimenter’s background, politics, etc. will influence the results. One way to address this is have a variety of trained researchers in the field who can cross-check observations afterward to ensure each researcher agrees on the themes.|
Other Articles on Observational Research
- Observational Research: 10 Great Examples
- Qualitative Observation: Guide for Students
- Naturalistic Observation: Guide for Students
- Systematic Observation: Strengths and Weaknesses
Dantzker, M. L., & Hunter, R. D. (2006). Research Methods for Criminology and Criminal Justice: A Primer. Jones and Bartlett.
Gall, M. D., Gall, J. P., & Borg, W. R. (2014). Applying Educational Research: How to Read, Do, and Use Research to Solve Problems of Practice. Pearson Education.
Gronmo, S. (2019). Social Research Methods: Qualitative, Quantitative and Mixed Methods Approaches. SAGE Publications.
Morgan, S. J., Pullon, S. R., Macdonald, L. M., McKinlay, E. M., & Gray, B. V. (2017). Case study observational research: A framework for conducting case study research where observation data are the focus. Qualitative health research, 27(7), 1060-1068. (Source)
Sedgwick, P., & Greenwood, N. (2015). Understanding the Hawthorne effect. Bmj, 351. (Source)
Tayie, S. (2005). Research Methods and Writing Research Proposals. Pathways to Higher Education.
Wang, M. T., Bolland, M. J., & Grey, A. (2015). Reporting of limitations of observational research. JAMA internal medicine, 175(9), 1571-1572. (Source)
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]