Observational research involves observing the actions of people or animals, usually in their natural environments.
For example, Jane Goodall famously observed chimpanzees in the wild and reported on their group behaviors. Similarly, many educational researchers will conduct observations in classrooms to gain insights into how children learn.
Examples of Observational Research
1. Jane Goodall’s Research
Jane Goodall is famous for her discovery that chimpanzees use tools. It is one of the most remarkable findings in psychology and anthropology.
Her primary method of study involved simply entering the natural habitat of her research subjects, sitting down with pencil and paper, and making detailed notes of what she observed.
Those observations were later organized and transformed into research papers that provided the world with amazing insights into animal behavior.
When she first discovered that chimpanzees use twigs to “fish” for termites, it was absolutely stunning. The renowned Louis Leakey proclaimed: “we must now redefine tool, redefine man, or accept chimps as humans.”
2. Linguistic Development of Children
Answering a question like, “how do children learn to speak,” can only be answered by observing young children at home.
By the time kids get to first grade, their language skills have already become well-developed, with a vocabulary of thousands of words and the ability to use relatively complex sentences.
Therefore, a researcher has to conduct their study in the child’s home environment. This typically involves having a trained data collector sit in a corner of a room and take detailed notes about what and how parents speak to their child.
Those observations are later classified in a way that they can be converted into quantifiable measures for statistical analysis.
For example, the data might be coded in terms of how many words the parents spoke, degree of sentence complexity, or emotional dynamic of being encouraging or critical. When the data is analyzed, it might reveal how patterns of parental comments are linked to the child’s level of linguistic development.
Related Article: 15 Action Research Examples
3. Consumer Product Design
Before Apple releases a new product to the market, they conduct extensive analyses of how the product will be perceived and used by consumers.
The company wants to know what kind of experience the consumer will have when using the product. Is the interface user-friendly and smooth? Does it fit comfortably in a person’s hand?
Is the overall experience pleasant?
So, the company will arrange for groups of prospective customers come to the lab and simply use the next iteration of one of their great products. That lab will absolutely contain a two-way mirror and a team of trained observers sitting behind it, taking detailed notes of what the test groups are doing. The groups might even be video recorded so their behavior can be observed again and again.
That will be followed by a focus group discussion, maybe a survey or two, and possibly some one-on-one interviews.
4. Satellite Images of Walmart
Observational research can even make some people millions of dollars. For example, a report by NPR describes how stock market analysts observe Walmart parking lots to predict the company’s earnings.
The analysts purchase satellite images of selected parking lots across the country, maybe even worldwide. That data is combined with what they know about customer purchasing habits, broken down by time of day and geographic region.
Over time, a detailed set of calculations are performed that allows the analysts to predict the company’s earnings with a remarkable degree of accuracy.
This kind of observational research can result in substantial profits.
5. Spying on Farms
Similar to the example above, observational research can also be implemented to study agriculture and farming.
By using infrared imaging software from satellites, some companies can observe crops across the globe. The images provide measures of chlorophyll absorption and moisture content, which can then be used to predict yields. Those images also allow analysts to simply count the number of acres being planted for specific crops across the globe.
In commodities such as wheat and corn, that prediction can lead to huge profits in the futures markets.
It’s an interesting application of observational research with serious monetary implications.
6. Decision-making Group Dynamics
When large corporations make big decisions, it can have serious consequences to the company’s profitability, or even survival.
Therefore, having a deep understanding of decision-making processes is essential. Although most of us think that we are quite rational in how we process information and formulate a solution, as it turns out, that’s not entirely true.
Decades of psychological research has focused on the function of statements that people make to each other during meetings. For example, there are task-masters, harmonizers, jokers, and others that are not involved at all.
A typical study involves having professional, trained observers watch a meeting transpire, either from a two-way mirror, by sitting-in on the meeting at the side, or observing through CCTV.
By tracking who says what to whom, and the type of statements being made, researchers can identify weaknesses and inefficiencies in how a particular group engages the decision-making process.
7. Case Studies
A case study is an in-depth examination of one particular person. It is a form of observational research that involves the researcher spending a great deal of time with a single individual to gain a very detailed understanding of their behavior.
The researcher may take extensive notes, conduct interviews with the individual, or take video recordings of behavior for further study.
Case studies give a level of detailed information that is not available when studying large groups of people. That level of detail can often provide insights into a phenomenon that could lead to the development of a new theory or help a researcher identify new areas of research.
Researchers sometimes have no choice but to conduct a case study in situations in which the phenomenon under study is rare. Because the condition is so uncommon, it is impossible to find a large enough sample of cases to study with quantitative methods.
8. Infant Attachment
One of the first studies on infant attachment utilized an observational research methodology. Mary Ainsworth went to Uganda in 1954 to study maternal practices and mother/infant bonding.
Ainsworth visited the homes of 26 families on a bi-monthly basis for 2 years, taking detailed notes and interviewing the mothers regarding their parenting practices.
Her notes were then turned into academic papers and formed the basis for the Strange Situations test that she developed for the laboratory setting.
The Strange Situations test consists of 8 situations, each one lasting no more than a few minutes. Trained observers are stationed behind a two-way mirror and have been trained to make systematic observations of the baby’s actions in each situation.
9. Ethnographic Research
Ethnography is a type of observational research where the researcher becomes part of a particular group or society.
The researcher’s role as data collector is hidden and they attempt to immerse themselves in the community as a regular member of the group.
By being a part of the group and keeping one’s purpose hidden, the researcher can observe the natural behavior of the members up-close. The group will behave as they would naturally and treat the researcher as if they were just another member. This can lead to insights into the group dynamics, beliefs, customs and rituals that could never be studied otherwise.
10. Time and Motion Studies
Time and motion studies involve observing work processes in the work environment. The goal is to make procedures more efficient, which can involve reducing the number of movements needed to complete a task.
Reducing the movements necessary to complete a task increases efficiency, and therefore improves productivity. A time and motion study can also identify safety issues that may cause harm to workers, and thereby help create a safer work environment.
The two most famous early pioneers of this type of observational research are Frank and Lillian Gilbreth.
Lilian was a psychologist that began to study the bricklayers of her husband Frank’s construction company. Together, they figured out a way to reduce the number of movements needed to lay bricks from 18 to 4 (see original video footage here).
The couple became quite famous for their work during the industrial revolution and
Lillian became the only psychologist to appear on a postage stamp (in 1884).
Why do Observational Research?
Psychologists and anthropologists employ this methodology because:
- Psychologists find that studying people in a laboratory setting is very artificial. People often change their behavior if they know it is going to be analyzed by a psychologist later.
- Anthropologists often study unique cultures and indigenous peoples that have little contact with modern society. They often live in remote regions of the world, so, observing their behavior in a natural setting may be the only option.
- In animal studies, there are lots of interesting phenomenon that simply cannot be observed in a laboratory, such as foraging behavior or mate selection. Therefore, observational research is the best and only option available.
Observational research is an incredibly useful way to collect data on a phenomenon that simply can’t be observed in a lab setting. This can provide insights into human behavior that could never be revealed in an experiment.
Researchers employ observational research methodologies when they travel to remote regions of the world to study indigenous people, try to understand how parental interactions affect a child’s language development, or how animals survive in their natural habitats.
On the business side, observational research is used to understand how products are perceived by customers, how groups make important decisions that affect profits, or make economic predictions that can lead to huge monetary gains.
Ainsworth, M. D. S. (1967). Infancy in Uganda. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A
psychological study of the Strange Situation. Hillsdale: Erlbaum.
Crowe, S., Cresswell, K., Robertson, A., Huby, G., Avery, A., & Sheikh, A. (2011). The case study approach. BMC Medical Research Methodology, 11, 100. https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2288-11-100
d’Apice, K., Latham, R., & Stumm, S. (2019). A naturalistic home observational approach to children’s language, cognition, and behavior. Developmental Psychology, 55(7),1414-1427. https://doi.org/10.1037/dev0000733