23 Qualitative Observation Examples

qualitative observation examples and definition, explained below

Qualitative observation is a method of collecting data that involves describing the attributes and properties of a phenomenon or subject through the senses, rather than using numerical measurements.

This type of observation is most beneficial for studies designed to provide in-depth, detailed, nuanced, and contextualized case studies. The qualitative data generated can help to explain complex concepts.

However, unlike quantitative observation (such as measuring lengths, instances, and intervals), this data cannot be generalized beyond the scope of the research project itself, limiting its applicability to a wide variety of situations.

Qualitative Observation Examples

1. Participant Observation

Participant observation is a type of qualitative observation where the researcher not only observes the researched group or individuals, but also actively engages in the activities of the group or individuals[1].

This immersion in the activity and culture of the group allows for a deeper understanding, usually over a longer period. It allows the researcher to fully participate in the day-to-day lives and rituals of the participants.

The goal is to gain deeper insights into their social and cultural practices, which can then be explained through thick description.

Participant Observation Example: An anthropologist might live within a remote tribe for a period to understand their lifestyle, beliefs, and customs. They would participate in daily activities, mimic behaviors, and even learn the local language to gather empirical and comprehensive data.

2. Non-Participant Observation

In non-participant observation, the researcher observes the participants without getting involved in their actions or activities[2]. In other words, they remain “invisible” to the research subjects, who are unaware of being observed.

This reduces potential observer-effects, such as participants modifying their behavior because they know they are being watched. However, it also places some distance between the observer and the observed, which may limit the depth of understanding.

Example: A researcher studying interactions in a workplace might install surveillance cameras and watch the footage to observe how employees interact when they think they are not being observed. By not involving themselves directly, they aim to capture the most accurate and natural interactions.

3. Naturalistic Observation

Naturalistic observation is a method where the researcher observes behavior in a natural setting, without manipulating or controlling the situation[3].

It allows the researcher to study things in their natural environment, providing a real-world context. This observational method provides the opportunity to collect data that is not artificial or manipulated while providing deep insights into a phenomenon.

Naturalistic Observation Example: A psychologist studying children’s play behavior might observe a group of children in a playground during their recess. By leaving the children in their natural and uncontrolled play environment, the psychologist can see the real-life application of the children’s social skills, the play schemes they adopt, and how they use their imagination and negotiation skills.

4. Focus Groups

Focus groups involve a group of individuals who participate in a guided discussion about a particular topic. The researchers take notes and discern themes based on these focus group discussions[4,5].

The group setting encourages participants to share diverse perspectives, generating rich, detailed data. However, the dynamic can be influenced by more dominant individuals, potentially biasing the group’s collective voice.

Focus Group Example: A market researcher seeking feedback on a new product might conduct a focus group with potential consumers. In the discussion, they would ask about the product’s appeal, perceived usefulness, and areas for improvement, gaining insights into consumer preferences and acceptance.

5. Thick Description

Thick description an approach to qualitative observation used specifically in ethnographic research. It involves taking detailed accounts of people’s behavior in their social and cultural context.

This concept was created by Clifford Geertz[6], an anthropologist seeking a better method for the analysis of natural phenomena.

Thick descriptions not only detail the behavior but also its context, as well as the intentions and emotions of the actors. Though rich in detail, interpretation of thick description depends on the cultural competence and analytical skills of the researcher.

Thick Description Example: An anthropologist studying an indigenous tribe might use thick description to provide in-depth accounts of their rituals. They would describe not only the actions of the rituals but also the emotions experienced, the social and cultural context, the symbolism involved, the participants’ understanding and interpretation of the ritual, essentially providing a nuanced, multilayered understanding of the tribe’s practices.

6. Structured Observation

Structured observation is a systematic method in observational research where the researcher explicitly decides where, when, and how the observation will take place.

The researcher typically uses previously defined criteria and may have a specific list of behaviors to look for[7,8]. It often involves the use of standardized scales or coding systems to categorize observed behaviors, and it aims at statistical reliability.

Example: A behavioral psychologist studying aggressive behaviors in children after playing violent video games might conduct structured observations by having the children play the games in a set environment (controlled setting, same gaming platform, same game) and then observing for specific aggressive behaviors (like hitting, shouting, throwing objects) based on a previously prepared checklist.

7. Unstructured Observation

Unstructured observation, unlike structured observation, does not involve pre-determined criteria or an exact plan for the observation.

Instead, the observer merely watches the participants in a situation and records whatever they think is relevant or significant[8]. This approach allows for the discovery of unexpected phenomena but can be more time consuming and may elicit subjective interpretations.

Example: A sociologist studying homeless people’s daily routines might follow several homeless individuals around throughout their day without a specific plan or list of behaviors to observe. They take note of any behavior they believe is significant to understanding the lifestyle and hardships of a homeless individual.

8. Direct Observation

Direct observation involves a researcher being physically present to observe and record behavior as it occurs. The researcher may or may not be visible to the participants[9].

Direct observation allows the researcher to collect firsthand data and reduces the chances of missing any relevant information. However, it can also introduce bias as the researcher’s interpretation and presence can affect the situation.

Example: An educator studying classroom dynamics might sit at the back of the classroom to directly observe student behavior, interactions, and engagement. They could observe how different teaching styles affect student attentiveness, participation, and overall classroom behavior.

9. Indirect Observation

Indirect observation is the collection of data through some means other than direct observation; the researcher does not have to be present at the site of observation[9].

The researcher can use techniques such as video recordings, photographs, or existing records. This approach lessens potential bias from the researcher’s presence but might miss contexts or non-verbal cues.

Example: A city planner studying traffic patterns might use footage from surveillance cameras placed at various intersections around the city, rather than observing every intersection in person. This method allows them to analyze traffic flow, most frequent peak hours, and violations at different times and days.

10. Continuous Monitoring

Continuous monitoring involves observing a subject or a phenomenon over an uninterrupted period, recording all actions and events as they occur[10].

This type of observation provides comprehensive data about a subject’s behavior across different times and situations. However, it can be time-consuming and requires extensive resources.

Example: A wildlife biologist studying the behavior of a certain animal species might set up a live camera feed on the animals’ habitat to continuously monitor their activities. They would track their feeding habits, social behaviors, mating rituals, sleep patterns, etc., to gain a holistic understanding of the species’ lifestyle.

See Also: Types of Qualitative Research

11. Interval Recording

Interval recording is a method where the observation period is divided into smaller intervals, and the researcher records whether or not a specific behavior occurs within each interval[10].

This method provides a snapshot of behavior during certain times and is not as time-consuming as continuous monitoring. Still, it might miss occurrences that happen between intervals.

Example: A clinical psychologist studying an individual with Tourette Syndrome might record every 15 seconds whether or not a tic occurs. They might do this over a series of therapy sessions to understand the frequency of the tics and the effect of the therapy.

12. Time Sampling

Time sampling is an observational method where the researcher records behaviors at pre-determined intervals of time, regardless of the event type[10].

The researcher chooses specific time periods and determines whether or not the behavior of interest is happening during those times. Time sampling can simplify long observations and reduce the workload, but it might miss events that happen outside the selected time periods.

Example: An educator studying student engagement during a lecture might conduct a time sampling by noting what the students are doing (listening attentively, talking to fellow students, using their phones) at 10-minute intervals throughout the lecture.

13. Narrative Observation

Narrative observation involves recording detailed, descriptive notes about what is being observed. It attempts to capture the full context and detail of events, rather than just specific behaviors[9].

This method is unstructured and allows for capturing unforeseen information, as it doesn’t focus only on specific behaviors or events. However, it can also be time-consuming and data may be difficult to analyze systematically.

Example: A social worker trying to understand the dynamics of a dysfunctional family might record detailed narrative observations of family interactions. This could involve noting down not just what is said and done, but also the context, the tones of voice, facial expressions, and any other significant details such as time and physical setting.

14. Anecdotal Records

Anecdotal records provides a detailed description of a significant behavior or event that the observer finds interesting or important[10].

The observer might not necessarily be looking for this specific behavior or event in advance, but upon noticing it, they write it down in as much detail as possible, hence creating an “anecdote” about it. This form of observation captures information that might not have been sought, but could be very significant.

Anecdote Example: A teacher noticing a child displaying advanced reading skills might write an anecdotal record about it, describing how the child was reading, which book they chose, and ways they interacted with the material. These records can then be used to tailor the child’s education plan to their advanced skill level.

15. Checklist Observation

A checklist observation is a form of structured observation where the observer has a specific list of behaviors, characteristics, or events that they are looking to observe[11].

It allows for systematic collection of data and can provide a quick and efficient way to record and compare information across multiple observations or participants. However, it might miss other relevant information that is not on the checklist.

Example: A human resource manager observing employee performance might have a checklist that includes factors like punctuality, completion of tasks, cooperation with team members, and ability to meet deadlines. The manager would use this to evaluate the employees and identify areas for improvement.

16. Rubrics

Rubrics are a type of observation tool that provides a detailed performance scoring guide. They include criteria that are specific, observable, and measurable[12].

Each criterion is evaluated against a performance scale, allowing for consistency among different observers. While rubrics establish clear expectations and standards, developing effective rubrics can be time-consuming.

Example: A physical education teacher evaluating a student’s performance in gymnastics might use a rubric. Criteria might include the technique of different moves, the level of difficulty, the gracefulness and fluidity of performance, and the creativity of the routine.

17. Video Observation

Video observation refers to using video recording as a tool for data collection in observational research. It involves recording the behaviors or events of interest so they can be analyzed at a later time[12].

It allows for capturing details that the observer might miss during real-time observation and for re-visiting the observation for further analysis. However, it may also hinder the naturalness of behaviors due to camera awareness.

Example: A sociolinguist studying nonverbal communication might use video observation capturing conversations between participants. Recording would allow the researcher to review and analyze subtle body language, facial expressions, or pauses that might have been missed during live observation.

18. Audio Observation

Audio observation is a method that uses audio recordings to capture information during a research study. Behaviors or interactions are recorded for subsequent analysis[12].

This method assists in preserving the verbal aspects of an event but lacks visual data. It is often used in group discussions, interviews, or conversation analysis where auditory information is primary.

Example: A linguist studying dialect variations in a certain region might conduct audio observations by recording conversations between natives of that region. They could then analyze variations in pronunciation, vocabulary, and syntax.

19. Focused Observation

Focused observation is a method where observers focus on specific behaviors, interactions, or events rather than trying to capture everything that occurs[13].

These observations often address specific research questions, allowing for a deeper understanding of the focused elements. However, other contextually significant behaviors or interactions might be overlooked.

Example: A researcher studying gender dynamics in office settings might conduct a focused observation on how men and women participate in team meetings—who initiates discussions more frequently, who gets interrupted more, who takes on leadership roles.

20. Longitudinal Observation

Longitudinal observation spans over a long period, allowing researchers to study changes and developments[14].

This method is valuable for exploring long-term effects or trends, but it requires a significant commitment of time and resources. Additionally, maintaining the same observation conditions might be challenging over time.

Example: A developmental psychologist studying the effect of parental involvement on school performance might conduct longitudinal observation by regularly observing a group of students from kindergarten through high school, correlating their academic progression with different degrees of parental involvement.

See Also: Longitudinal Research Guide

21. Field Observation

Field observation, often used in ethnographic research, involves observing subjects in their natural environment, or “in the field”[1].

Real world settings offer a wealth of contextual richness, allowing researchers to study individuals or groups in a more natural, less controlled manner, often resulting in more honest behaviors. However, uncontrolled environments can introduce uncontrolled variables, offering potential challenges to data interpretation.

Example: An anthropologist studying the subculture of graffiti artists might conduct field observations by spending time at locations where these artists typically work, observing their process, community interactions, and reactions of the general public.

22. Controlled Observation

Controlled observation takes place in a setting where variables can be manipulated or controlled by the observer[15].

Often conducted in a lab setting, it allows the observer to establish cause-and-effect relationships by manipulating independent variables and observing their effect on dependent variables.

While this method can provide strong evidence, it may lack ecological validity, as outcomes observed in a controlled setting may not necessarily translate to real-world situations.

Example: A psychologist studying the effects of anxiety on test performance might conduct a controlled observation by administering a test to two groups: one group under normal conditions, and the other under conditions designed to induce anxiety, then observing for any differences in performance.

23. Case Study Observation

Case study observation involves an in-depth examination of a specific individual, group, or event in real-life context[16].

It provides a holistic view of the subject and allows for understanding of complex issues. However, findings might not be generalizable due to specificity.

Example: A social scientist interested in understanding the impact of poverty on education might conduct case study observations on children from low-income families. They might observe the child at home, at school, or in other social settings over a period of time to ascertain how their socio-economic status affects their educational opportunities and performance.

See Also: Advantages and Disadvantages of Case Studies

Qualitative vs Quantitative Observation

Qualitative observation delves into understanding underlying meanings and human behavior through non-numerical data collection, while quantitative observation seeks to uncover patterns and establish facts through numerical data collection and analysis.

Qualitative observation is focused on understanding underlying meanings and concepts that govern behavior or situations. It seeks to explore the depth, richness, and complexity inherent in phenomena. On the other hand, quantitative observation aims at drawing conclusions based on numerical data. It relies on measurable data to formulate facts and uncover patterns in research.

The research methodologies employed in qualitative and quantitative observations significantly differ:

  • Qualitative methods are often more flexible, allowing for a broader understanding of issues at hand, and are particularly useful in exploring new or complex issues. They provide a narrative or descriptive outcome, which can be instrumental in understanding the context of a particular situation.
  • Quantitative methods are rigid but provide a clear-cut answer to a research question. They yield numerical data that can be analyzed using statistical methods to validate or refute hypotheses. The outcome of quantitative research often comes in the form of graphs, charts, or tables showcasing the relationships between different variables.
AspectQualitative ObservationQuantitative Observation
AimUnderstanding underlying meanings, emotions, and processesEstablishing facts, uncovering patterns, and testing hypotheses
Data TypeNon-numerical (textual, visual, or auditory data)Numerical (statistical or measurable data)
Method FlexibilityFlexible, adaptable to changesStructured, standardized and rigid
Data CollectionInterviews, focus groups, observations, content analysisSurveys, experiments, questionnaires, numerical measurements
Data AnalysisThematic analysis, narrative analysis, discourse analysisStatistical analysis, numerical comparisons, and graphical representation
OutcomeDescriptive or narrativeNumerical, often represented through graphs, charts, or tables
Depth of UnderstandingProvides deep insights into specific cases or phenomenaProvides a broad understanding across a large sample size
HypothesisGenerally used for hypothesis generationUsed for hypothesis testing
GeneralizationLimited generalizability due to often smaller sample sizesHigh generalizability due to larger sample sizes and standardized methods
InterpretationInterpretative, understanding the context is crucialObjective, often requiring less interpretation
Time and ResourcesCan be time-consuming and resource-intensive due to the depth of explorationOften quicker and less resource-intensive due to structured methods

The choice between qualitative and quantitative observation often hinges on the nature of the research question and the stage of research.

Qualitative observation is generally more suited for exploratory or foundational research where not much is known about the problem. It helps in hypothesis generation by providing insights into the problem.

Quantitative observation, on the other hand, is ideal for confirmatory or validation studies where hypotheses are tested under controlled conditions. It helps in hypothesis testing and contributes to the establishment of facts or the discovery of general laws.

Both types of observation are crucial for a comprehensive understanding of research problems, and a mixed-methods approach, which combines both qualitative and quantitative methods, is often deemed most effective in tackling complex research questions.

Pros and Cons of Qualitative Observation

Qualitative observation is pivotal in understanding complex phenomena by delving into the intricacies of human behavior, social interactions, and cultural norms[9,11].

Through qualitative observation, researchers can capture the natural setting and the context in which individuals operate, which often leads to more authentic and nuanced findings.

However, it has its limitations.

The very features that make qualitative observation powerful can also be seen as its shortcomings.

The findings from qualitative observation are not generalizable due to the small sample sizes typically employed[11].

Additionally, this form of observation is also highly dependent on the skills and biases of the researcher, which can influence the data collection and interpretation process[7].

See the table below for a summary of the key pros and cons:

Pros of Qualitative ObservationCons of Qualitative Observation
Provides deep insights into specific cases or phenomena[16]May not provide a comprehensive understanding across a large spectrum[9]
Adaptable to changes and unexpected findingsLack of standardization can lead to inconsistencies
Captures natural settings and contextual nuances[1,8]Time-consuming and resource-intensive data collection and analysis[9,11]
Rich, detailed data[6]Potential for researcher bias in data collection and interpretation[9]
More holistic and nuanced findingsLack of replicability and comparability across different studies
Useful for hypothesis generation[9,11]May be influenced by researcher’s subjective interpretation[7]
Limited generalizability due to smaller sample sizes[11]
Difficult to establish validity and reliability due to subjective interpretation

Up Next: An Introduction to Qualitative Research


[1] Seim, J. (2021). Participant observation, observant participation, and hybrid ethnography. Sociological Methods & Research, 0049124120986209. (Source)

[2] Handley, M., Bunn, F., Lynch, J., & Goodman, C. (2020). Using non-participant observation to uncover mechanisms: Insights from a realist evaluation. Evaluation26(3), 380-393. (Source)

[3] Carey, A. L., Rentscher, K. E., & Mehl, M. R. (2020). Naturalistic observation of social interactions. The Wiley encyclopedia of health psychology, 373-383. (Source)

[4] Cyr, J. (2019). Focus Groups for the Social Science Researcher. Cambridge University Press.

[5] Mishra, L. (2016). Focus group discussion in qualitative research. TechnoLearn: An International Journal of Educational Technology6(1), 1-5. (Source)

[6] Geertz, C. (1973). Thick Description: Towards an Interprative theory of culture. The Interpretation of Cultures, 3-31.

[7] Damaskinidis, G. (2017). Qualitative research and subjective impressions in educational contexts. American Journal of Educational Research5(12), 1228-1233.

[8] Farid, S. (2022). Observation. In Principles of Social Research Methodology (pp. 365-375). Singapore: Springer Nature Singapore.

[9] Daniel, B. K., & Harland, T. (2017). Higher Education Research Methodology: A Step-by-Step Guide to the Research Process. Taylor & Francis.

[10] Kirner, K., & Mills, J. (2019). Introduction to Ethnographic Research: A Guide for Anthropology. SAGE Publications.

[11] Bryman, A. (2012). Social Research Methods. OUP Oxford.

[12] Kelly, G. J., & Green, J. L. (Eds.). (2018). Theory and Methods for Sociocultural Research in Science and Engineering Education. Taylor & Francis.

[13] Schneider, N. C., Coates, W. C., & Yarris, L. M. (2017). Taking your qualitative research to the next level: a guide for the medical educator. AEM education and training1(4), 368-378. (Source)

[14] Thomson, R., & McLeod, J. (2015). New frontiers in qualitative longitudinal research: An agenda for research. International Journal of Social Research Methodology18(3), 243-250. (Source)

[15] Islam, M. R., Khan, N. A., & Baikady, R. (Eds.). (2022). Principles of Social Research Methodology. Springer Nature Singapore.

[16] Njie, B., & Asimiran, S. (2014). Case study as a choice in qualitative methodology. Journal of research & method in Education4(3), 35-40.

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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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