Observational studies are investigations where the researcher observes a situation and records what happens but does not manipulate an independent variable.
Observational studies therefore tend to be high in ecological validity as there is no intervention and if the observer remains undetected the method avoids problems with demand characteristics.
Strengths of the Observational Method
+ Allows the researcher to measure how participants actually behave rather than what they say they do. They therefore tend to be high in ecological validity and thus findings are more likely to generalise to everyday situations.
+ They tend to offer ways of studying behaviour when there are ethical problems with manipulating variables. For example there will be less ethical issues with carry out a naturalistic observation of school children compared to carrying out experiments on school children.
+ Observational studies are also useful as a starting point in research. For example the researchers may be investigating a new area of research in order to produce hypotheses for future investigations such as experiments.
+ If covert observation is conducted, then participants are less likely to perform to demand characteristics, as they are unaware they are being observed.
Weaknesses of the Observational Method
– Observational studies are difficult to replicate because often there is little or no control of extraneous variables therefore we can not make cause and effect statements.
– Observations may only give a reductionist view as they do not provide information about what participants are thinking or feeling.
– There is also the problem of observer bias with observational studies. This occurs if the observers ‘see’ what they expect to see.
– A number of ethical issues can arise with observational studies including problems with a lack of informed consent, deception and invasion of privacy.
– Observations can also be very time consuming, require careful preparation and possibly training for the observers.
Types of Observations
Non-participant observation = a type of observational study whereby the researcher does not join in with the activity being observed.
Participant observation = a type of observational study where the observer is also a participant in the activity being studied. This type of observation can be useful because it provides more insights about behaviour but does have a problem that the observer may lose some objectivity.
Covert observation = a type of observational study whereby the participants are not fully aware that they are being studied. The researchers may use one-way mirrors. This ensures that the participants are not aware they are being studied.
Structured observation = where the researchers design a type of coding scheme to record the participants’ behaviour. Structured observations generally provide quantitative data. Coding schemes are ways of categorising behaviour so that you can code what you observe in terms of how often a type of behaviour appears. Coding schemes are also known as a behavioural checklist. The observer simply ticks the relevant category when one of the behaviours occurs. Behavioural categories should be mutually exclusive (not overlapping) but in reality this is often difficult to do with a checklist.
- Advantages of using a coding scheme are that they are fairly simple to carry out and that they provide quantitative data which can be analysed statistically.
- However observation using coding schemes has a main weakness. It gives a very restricted view of what is actually happening. The researcher may miss important behaviour and the data is not as in-depth as simply observing behaviour which is occurring.
Unstructured observation = involves the researchers recording the behaviour they can see. This can be difficult without the use of recording equipment (such as a video camera), can be difficult to analyse but does provide rich qualitative data. Furthermore with unstructured observations there is a tendency for observers to record the most eye-catching or noticeable behaviours which might not be the most relevant or important behaviours to record.
Controlled observation = occurs when the researchers control some variables. These observations may be carried out in laboratory situations or natural situations.
Sampling observational data
Sometimes researchers use a sampling technique as it may be difficult to record everything. Two techniques are event sampling and time sampling.
- Event sampling: consists of the researcher recoding an event every time it happens. For example, ticking a box every time somebody coughs. Although behaviours should not be missed, if too many observations happen at once it may be difficult to record everything.
- Time sampling: occurs when the researcher decides on a time say 5 seconds and then records what behaviour is occurring at that time. A problem with time sampling is that some behaviours will be missed and therefore the observation may not be valid.
Reliability and validity of observations.
Reliability = how consistent a measuring device is. A measurement is said to be reliable or consistent if the measurement can produce similar results if used again in similar circumstances.
A common way of assessing the reliability of observations is to use inter-rater reliability. This involves comparing the ratings of two or more observers and checking for agreement in their measurements.
A way of improving the reliability of an observational study is to ensure that the categories are clear or that the observers are well trained in the use of the checklists.
Validity = whether a study measures or examines what it claims to measure or examine. Observations could lack validity for a number of reasons. If participants are aware they are being observed they may behave in the way they feel they should behave. Validity could also be reduced by observer bias. That is the observer may be influenced by expectations and not record objectively what happened
Validity could be improved in a number of ways. Perhaps some of the categories could have been coded in a different or clearer way. Observers could be kept unaware of the aims of the observation or more observers could be employed.