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Understanding qualitative observation

Last updated

20 March 2023

Author

Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Tanya Williams

You can easily analyze quantitative data, making it an ideal resource for researchers looking to understand complex topics. But not everything is quantifiable. 

The complexity and richness of the human experience mean that objective numbers don’t easily represent many social phenomena that researchers may want to study. This is where qualitative observation comes in. Let’s jump into an overview of this important research topic.

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What is qualitative observation?

Because research often relies on data that we can't easily put into objective numbers, researchers rely on non-numerical data for some of their studies.

Qualitative observation is one way of gathering that data. When researchers deploy this method, they collect their data by directly observing the people, behaviors, or events they're studying. 

Qualitative observation relies on a more subjective approach than quantitative analysis, but it remains a powerful tool for suitable areas.

Qualitative vs. quantitative observation

Many people wonder which method is better. Is qualitative observation better than quantitative, or vice-versa? The answer depends entirely on the subject you’re studying.

You should always opt for obtaining hard, objective data when possible. When it isn't possible, qualitative observation can fill in many missing gaps. 

Ultimately, researchers shouldn't view these as two competing methodologies. They are great tools for developing a complete picture of complex topics.

Characteristics of qualitative observation

Researchers choose qualitative observation to generate meaningful and context-specific insights into social phenomena that are otherwise hard to measure. 

They must rely on distinct characteristics to guide their research and help them interpret the data they uncover to gain accurate insights without quantifiable data.

Here are some of these characteristics:

Naturalistic inquiry

Qualitative observation rarely occurs in controlled laboratory environments, as naturalistic inquiry studies people in their natural context. When people are in a laboratory setting, they are prone to change their behavior. More natural settings put them at ease and make them feel less like study subjects.

Participant observation

To gain a deeper understanding of the topic you’re studying, you can actively participate in the activities or events you’re observing. You learn more about the subject by engaging directly with it and recording your experiences.

Sensitivity to context

Social norms, power dynamics, and historical factors can shape beliefs and behaviors. 

For example, a researcher in a position of power over a participant may make the person feel uncomfortable. Residents of countries with a long history of slavery may find race-related topics more challenging to discuss than in other countries. 

These factors become variables that a qualitative observer must control for. It’s vital to be aware of how a person's experiences might shape their perceptions. 

Reflexivity

Researchers are humans too. They're subject to the same factors that impact their subject's beliefs. Researchers must actively examine how their perceptions and biases may cloud how they interpret the data.

Empathic neutrality

In addition to using reflexivity to examine their biases, researchers must remain neutral and unbiased when conducting their study. They must empathize with the perspectives and experiences of the participants, even when they disagree with them. 

Researchers should aim to understand and appreciate the participants' experiences without imposing their views or judgments on them.

Subjectivity

Objectivity is impossible with qualitative observation. Researchers who employ qualitative observation must be aware of this fact. Acknowledging that they won't gain objective truth about human behavior and experience while using the method is vital. It allows them to be open to alternative interpretations of the data, all of which may be valid.

Uniqueness

While engaging in qualitative observations, researchers must recognize the unique aspects of each individual and situation they’re studying. This involves being attentive to the nuances of the data and avoiding generalizations or stereotypes that may overlook the complexity of human behavior and experience.

Inductive reasoning

Studying objective subjects is often deductive: Researchers start with a hypothesis and gather data to test it. Subjective areas of study are the opposite. Inductive reasoning involves gathering and examining the data to develop theories and insights into what they learned.

What are the types of qualitative observation?

Qualitative observation is a powerful research method you can apply to many situations. As each situation is unique, choosing the right approach is essential. 

You can employ several types of qualitative observation, which all have strengths and limitations:

Direct observation

This method allows researchers to observe and record behavior as it occurs in its natural setting. This type of observation can come in many forms; researchers may casually observe the subject or engage in a more structured, systematic observation. 

Direct observation can be beneficial for studying complex social interactions and behaviors that are difficult to capture through other methods.

Case studies

These involve an in-depth analysis of an individual, group, or event. Researchers collect as much information as possible about the case under investigation, reading interviews, documentation, and more to develop their understanding. 

Case studies are particularly useful for studying rare or unusual phenomena you may not easily observe through other methods.

Researcher as participant

In this method, the researcher becomes part of the group and participates in its activities and interactions. This approach can give researchers a unique way to better understand how the people they're studying feel about a topic. 

However, the researcher's role in the group can influence group behavior. Researchers who use this method must be extra careful to be neutral participants. 

Interviews

Sometimes, the best way to understand how someone feels about something is simply to talk to them.  Interviews can take two forms:

  • Structured, with a pre-defined set of questions

  • Unstructured, with open-ended questions and flexible conversation. 

Well-conducted interviews can provide rich, detailed data about individual experiences, attitudes, and beliefs.

Focus groups

In this type of interview, researchers bring together a small group to discuss a specific topic or issue. They can facilitate the discussion and record what the study participants say. 

Focus groups can provide insights into group dynamics and the range of perspectives and opinions.

Examples of qualitative observation

Let’s look at real-world examples of how researchers use qualitative observation in different professions.

An ethnographer studying the social dynamics, cultural practices, and relationships within the community might live among the community members and observe their behavior. Doing so can give them a deeper understanding of how the community thinks and operates.

A psychologist studying the subjective experiences of mental illness may want to understand the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors associated with specific disorders. The psychologist can gain insights into how people experience their symptoms through detailed interviews.

A sociologist studying protesters' motivations, perspectives, and social movements might observe and record their behavior. This information will help the researcher understand how individuals and groups approach protests and express their political views.

A teacher may be studying students' learning and communication patterns in the classroom. The teacher can learn how their students work together and alone to solve problems and share knowledge by observing and recording their interactions.

A case study researcher may want to study the experiences, behaviors, and perspectives of a single individual or group, such as a patient with a rare disease. They might conduct in-depth interviews and observe the patient’s behavior. Studying enough examples in this way can help the researcher understand their subject’s unique situation.

A journalist may be researching the stories and experiences of people impacted by a particular issue, such as homelessness or immigration. The journalist can gain insights into their struggles, challenges, and aspirations by conducting interviews.

An artist seeking to capture the unique qualities and character of a particular location or community through their artwork might observe the place or people firsthand. This way, the artist can create artwork that reflects the perspective of the subject matter.

A software development team developing a new product might invite potential users to try it out. Observing their experiences as they navigate the product's various functions means the team can gain important insights. It can help them determine where usability issues may occur and refine the product’s interface or instructions.

Qualitative observation is a great way to generate meaningful insights into subjects where numbers aren’t enough. Using the correct methods means you’ll have rich, valuable data for your study even when it’s not easily measurable.

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