Using Observations as Sources


Social scientists, natural scientists, engineers, computer scientists, educational researchers, and many others use observations as a primary research method. In this context, observations or personal observations refer to watching people, places, or events and making note of specific features that are relevant to your research.

Observations can be conducted on nearly any subject matter, and the kinds of observations you will do depend on your research question. For example, if you are writing a proposal on changing the way parking on campus works, you might observe traffic or parking patterns on campus to get a sense of what improvements could be made. If you choose to observe people, you will have several additional considerations, including the manner in which you will observe them and gain their consent.

If you are observing people, you can choose between two common ways to observe: participant observation and unobtrusive observation. Participant observation involves a researcher living with participants and becoming part of their community. For example, Margaret Mead, a famous anthropologist, spent extended periods of time living in communities that she studied. Conversely, in unobtrusive observation, you do not interact with participants but instead record their behavior in research notes or journals. Although in most circumstances, people must volunteer to be participants in research, in some cases, it is acceptable to not let participants know you are observing them. In places that people perceive as public, such as a campus food court or a shopping mall, people do not expect privacy, and so it is fine to observe without participant consent. Sometimes, the difficulty of getting consent may make unobtrusive observation the better option. If you are observing people in a busy airport, bus station, or campus food court, getting participants to sign forms giving consent may be next to impossible. In places that people perceive as private, which can include a church, home, classroom, or even a more formal restaurant, you need participant consent.

Eliminating Bias in Your Observation Notes

The ethical concern of being unbiased is important in recording your observations. You need to be aware of the difference between an observation (recording exactly what you see) and an interpretation (making assumptions and judgments about what you see). When you observe, you should focus first on only the events that are directly observable.

Consider the following two example entries in an observation log:

  1. The student sitting in the dining hall enjoys his greasy, oil-soaked pizza. He is clearly oblivious to the calorie content and damage it may do to his body.
  2. The student sits in the dining hall. As he eats his piece of pizza, which drips oil, he says to a friend, “This pizza is good.”

The first entry is biased and demonstrates judgment about the event. First, the observer makes assumptions about the internal state of the student when they write “enjoys” and “clearly oblivious to the calorie content.” From an observer’s standpoint, there is no way of ascertaining what the student may or may not know about pizza’s nutritional value or how much the student enjoys the pizza. The second entry provides only the details and facts that are observable.



Adapted from Charles Lowe’s and Pavel Zemliansky’s Observations” from Writing Spaces – Readings on Writing used according to CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0. 


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UNM Core Writing OER Collection Copyright © 2023 by University of New Mexico is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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