Field Observation (Research Method): Definition and Examples

field research examples and definition, explained below

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:

types of field research, explained below

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

Research Topic: Student Learning in Agile Learning Spaces

Type: Overt Observation

When I was a PhD student, I was employed to conduct a study in schools that implemented “Agile Learning Spaces”. These were spaces where students didn’t have set seats and students were free to roam around the large learning space to find their own cozy nook to learn, using the abundant resources available. It was like every lesson took place in a large luxurious library.

To do the field research, four trained researchers – including myself – would walk around the spaces observing the lessons. We did not participate, but listened to the students and observed their movements, use of resources, and interactions with one another and the teachers.

The data was then paired with semi-structured interviews of teachers and the researchers conducted thematic coding, cross-checked our themes, and wrote-up the study as both a report for the client and a series of academic papers. You can read one here.

2. A Social Anthropology / Psychology Example

Research Topic: “Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization.”

Type: Overt Participation

In the early 1920s, anthropologist Margaret Mead traveled to American Samoa to study the socialization of adolescents in the Samoan culture.

Her primary objective was to determine whether the turmoil and emotional distress associated with adolescence were a universal phenomenon or were influenced by cultural factors. Through extensive fieldwork, including interviews and observations, Mead found that Samoan adolescents experienced a relatively smooth transition from childhood to adulthood, with little of the stress and angst commonly observed in Western societies.

She attributed this difference to the Samoan culture’s relaxed attitudes towards sexuality and the supportive communal upbringing of children.

Mead’s conclusions challenged Western assumptions about human development and emphasized the role of cultural factors in shaping individual experiences.

“Coming of Age in Samoa” was groundbreaking at the time and sparked significant debate and further research into the influence of culture on development. However, it’s worth noting that Mead’s findings and methodology have been the subject of criticism and debate in subsequent years.

3. A Sociology Example

Research Topic: “Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places.”

Type: Covert Participation

Laud Humphreys sought to understand the phenomenon of impersonal sexual encounters between men in public restrooms, often referred to as “tearooms.”

To conduct his research, Humphreys took on the role of a “watch queen,” a person who keeps an eye out for the police, allowing the participants to engage in their activities without fear of arrest.

Without revealing his identity as a researcher, he observed the encounters and even followed participants discreetly to their homes, gathering information about their public lives. His findings revealed that many of these men identified as heterosexual and had families, challenging societal assumptions about sexuality.

However, the study has been heavily criticized for its ethical concerns, particularly around the invasion of privacy and lack of informed consent. This is a key issue with the covert participation approach.

4. An Anthropology Example

Research Topic: “The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People.”

British anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard conducted extensive fieldwork among the Nuer people of Sudan in the 1930s. Through participant observation, he immersed himself in the Nuer culture, studying their kinship structures, cattle herding practices, and political systems.

His work provided deep insights into the social organization and cultural practices of the Nuer, challenging Western notions of stateless societies.

Evans-Prichard’s study was an early ethnography, demonstrating how ethnographic research can reveal deep, nuanced, and extremely interesting insights, helping to normalize ethnography – an approach to field observation – as a legitimate research practice in anthropology.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Field Observation

Field Observation AdvantagesField 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


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 research27(7), 1060-1068. (Source)

Sedgwick, P., & Greenwood, N. (2015). Understanding the Hawthorne effect. Bmj351. (Source)

Tan, W. C. K. (2022). Research Methods: A Practical Guide For Students And Researchers (Second Edition). World Scientific Publishing Company.

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 medicine175(9), 1571-1572. (Source)

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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]

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