Collecting Data with Observations

Categories: Data Collection, Other, Research, Research Design, Research Roles

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In the first quarter of 2021 we explored design steps, starting with a January focus on Finding the Question. We learned more about the design stage in February by focusing on Choosing Methodology and MethodsThe March focus was on Designing an Ethical Study. In the second quarter our focus will move from the design stage to the data collection stage. Our focus for April is on Collecting Data from & with Participants.


In social research there are three basic sources for collection of new data:

  • Actors, who are observed when they perform their actions, express their opinions, or are involved in events.
  • Respondents, who respond to questions about their background, actions, opinions, or events.
  • Documents, which are content analyzed to find reports or traces of actions, opinions, or events.

Each source can be used for collecting qualitative or quantitative data. Qualitative data are typically collected by means of participant observation, unstructured interviews, or qualitative content analysis, while typical designs for collecting quantitative data are structured (nonparticipant) observation, structured questionnaires (surveys), or quantitative content analysis. The differences between these methods, as well as ways of combining them in mixed methods research, are presented in my book Social Research Methods: Qualitative, Quantitative and Mixed Methods Approaches.

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The most direct way of collecting data from, or on, participants in a study is to observe them as actors. What the actors are doing or saying, or what they are involved in, are noted immediately by the observer. Activities, communications, and interactions are registered as they occur. This simultaneity between the occurrence of social processes and the collection of data on these processes is a common feature of participant and nonparticipant observation.

However, there are several differences between the two types of observation. Participant observation means that the researchers combine their observation with participation in the processes that are observed. The combination of participation and observation requires a particular closeness to the actors who are observed. This closeness creates good opportunities for collecting qualitative data on these actors but also some special challenges regarding the reliability and validity of the data.  

In nonparticipant structured observation the researchers have a more distant relationship to the actors who are observed. Sometimes these actors do not even know that they are observed. Based on a fixed and structured observation schedule the researchers observe and register selected predetermined characteristics or activities of those actors who are examined. This is an adequate design for collecting quantitative observational data, with reliability and validity challenges that are different from the challenges involved in participant observation.

These differences between participant and nonparticipant observation and the advantages of combining the two approaches are discussed in my book on social research methods (Chapters 6, 9, 12, and 20). A very interesting comparison of participant and nonparticipant observation is also presented by Marcy B. Wood and Jennifer Y. Kinser-Traut, in their article Participant and Nonparticipant Observation: A Study of Instructional Support Liaisons.

Learn more on the resources site for Social Research Methods: Qualitative, Quantitative and Mixed Methods Approaches.

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