20 julio, 2024

Observational study: characteristics, techniques and instruments, examples

A observational study It is a type of qualitative research in which a scientist studies the behaviors, customs or reactions of a subject or group of them in a systematic way. Observations made during the study are analyzed later, with the goal of drawing conclusions about the research participants.

Examples of observational studies are a researcher observing the behavior of platypuses, a scientist observing the relationships of an Amazon tribe, or a sociologist observing how children behave in a certain school context.

Observational studies are part of a type of research known as “non-experimental”. This is because the researcher cannot manipulate any variables or control the results or conditions. Therefore, through them it is not possible to draw any firm conclusion about the causality or the effects of the observed phenomenon.

Observational research can be used in all kinds of fields, from those related to biology and ethology to those closest to the social sciences. Thus, it is common to find studies of this type in disciplines such as anthropology, zoology, psychology or sociology.

Although the basic idea behind an observational study is always the same, there are different ways to carry out an investigation of this type. In this article we will see what its main characteristics are and the most common methods by which it is put into practice.


Characteristics of the observational study

– Behaviors are observed in a natural environment

Among all the research methods that exist, the observational study is the most indicated to verify how a subject or a group of them behaves within their own environment.

While in other types of research the scientist is in charge of manipulating the conditions of what happens, or intervenes in some way in how the situation develops, in pure observation he is simply limited to studying what happens with different levels of participation depending on the situation. the case.

– Investigator involvement varies

As we have already mentioned, in an observational study the participation of the researcher can vary depending on different parameters such as the objectives of the study, the conditions, or even the field in which it is being carried out.

On many occasions, the researcher will limit himself to studying what is happening from the outside; and in the most extreme cases, participants won’t even know they’re being watched. This occurs, for example, in ethological studies in which a person wants to better understand the habits and customs of some animal species.

In other cases, however, the researcher can enter the situation to a greater or lesser extent, in order to collect more data and better understand what is happening.

An example of this would be the observation that is carried out in certain contexts of anthropology, where the scientist lives with an indigenous population to understand their way of acting.

– More reliable data is collected

One of the main problems with some types of quantitative research, such as surveys or interviews, is that the results are based exclusively on what the participants answer. Due to the nature of these research methods, the answers may not be very reliable.

In an observational study, on the contrary, the conclusions drawn about the behavior of the subjects are completely reliable as long as the method has been carried out correctly. For this reason, in certain contexts it is much more recommendable to use this type of research method.

Techniques and instruments

Within the observation, we basically find three techniques: controlled observation, naturalistic observation, and participant observation. Next we will see what each of them consists of.

– Controlled observation

The first version of this research method involves structured observation that occurs in an environment controlled by the researcher, such as a laboratory. The investigator controls some of the variables, such as the location, the participants, or the circumstances surrounding the study.

However, even if the researcher is involved to some extent, during the study itself the researcher will be limited to observing the way in which the participants behave. Generally, the behaviors seen will be classified by means of a code created beforehand, with the aim of studying what has happened later.

– Naturalistic observation

Naturalistic observation occurs when the researcher does not intervene at all in the situation he wants to study. Instead, he just watches it from the outside, trying to understand what happens naturally. This technique is used mainly in contexts such as ethology, but it can also occur in other natural and social sciences.

During a naturalistic observation, codes are not normally used to classify behaviors, but everything that occurs is fully recorded. Later the investigator will have to reformulate the data obtained in order to better understand what has happened.

– Participant observation

This last type of observation differs from the others in that the researcher will enter directly into the situation he wants to study, with the aim of better understanding it from within.

Thus, for example, an anthropologist could live with a tribe that they want to understand better, carrying out all their daily routines.

Examples of observational studies

– Jane Goodall’s Chimpanzees

One of the most famous ethologists in history is Jane Goodall, a researcher who wanted to understand the habits and behavior of chimpanzees. To do this, she was living with a tribe of these animals for many years, studying their behavior and becoming one of the pack.

These studies are a clear example of naturalistic and participant observation, since Goodall never manipulated the conditions in which he observed the monkeys. On the contrary, he limited himself to studying them and participating in what they did.

– Electoral surveys

A good example of controlled observation is the case of electoral polls, in which a public or private company talks with a large number of citizens to understand their intention to vote and make predictions about the results of the elections.

This would be an example of controlled observation, since although behaviors are not studied in their natural environment, researchers are merely observing behaviors with no intention of manipulating them in any way.

– Study of user behavior on the Internet

Marketing and advertising are two of the areas that lend themselves most to pure observation, since it is not easy to manipulate variables to study user behavior based on different parameters.

Thus, marketing experts observe factors such as visits to different websites, user preferences, purchases made through the network and other similar elements to determine what the current trends are and to be able to modify their advertising campaigns. .

Themes of interest

Scientific method.

Basic investigation.

Field research.

Applied research.

Pure research.

explanatory research.

descriptive research.


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“Observation methods”in: Simply Psychology. Retrieved on: February 26, 2020 from Simply Psychology: simplypsychology.com.
“Observational Techniques in Marketing Research”in: Chron. Retrieved on: February 26, 2020 from Chron: smallbusiness.chron.com.

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