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Observational Field Research. Advantages and Role of Observations. Records actual behavior , not what people say they said they did or believe they will do. Recorded behavior can be compared to verbal statements or other records, to check for the validity of their responses . . Limitations.

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Advantages and Role of Observations

  • Records actual behavior, not what people say they said they did or believe they will do.

  • Recorded behavior can be compared to verbal statements or other records, to check for the validity of their responses.

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  • Observation techniques do not provide insights into what the person may be thinking, why they performed a behavior, or what might motivate a given behavior/comment.

  • That type of information can only be obtained by asking people directly or indirectly from written or other sources.

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Ethical Considerations

  • Ethical issues arise when people are being observed, whether they are aware of it or not.

  • Technological advances--cameras and microphones—facilitate observing verbal and non-verbal behavior that might be considered to be an invasion of privacy, particularly if the subject is unaware of being observed.

  • Yet the information is used to make decisions that impact the subject.

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Should you Collect Your Data by Observation?

Questions to consider:

  • Is the topic sensitive?

  • Can you observe the Phenomena?

  • Do you have a lot of time?

  • Are you sure of what you are looking for?

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Types of Observations

  • Observation is a method of collecting data by human, mechanical, electrical or electronic means.

  • The researcher may or may not have direct contact or communication with the people whose behavior is being recorded.

  • Observation techniques can be part of qualitative research as well as quantitative research techniques.

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Six Different Ways Of Classifying Observation Methods:

  • Participant vs. Nonparticipant observation.

  • Obtrusive vs. Unobtrusive (including physical trace observation).

  • Observation in natural vs. contrived settings.

  • Disguised vs. non-disguised observation.

  • Structured vs. unstructured observation, and

  • Direct vs. indirect observation.

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Two Commonly Used Methods Of Direct Observations:

  • Continuous Monitoring

  • Time Allocation

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Direct Observation


Time Allocation

Focal Subject




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Continuous Monitoring

  • Continuous monitoring: observing and recording (manually, electronically, or both) as much of the behavior as possible.

  • May be problematic dueto the Hawthorne Effect--people react to being observed and their behavior changes.

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Two Major Techniques Of Continuous Monitoring

  • Focal subject sampling

  • Sequence sampling

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Focal Subject Sampling

  • Used to study specific behavior patterns.

  • Observe a single individual, for a specified time, recording all instances of the behavior under study.

  • Generates frequency of behaviors and compares subjects or groups.

  • Observations produce an ethogram: a description and inventory (usually with some information on relative frequency) of all of the behavior patterns exhibited the subject.

  • An ethogram requires considerable effort and numerous observation periods throughout the life cycle of the subject.

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Sequence Sampling

  • Similar to focal subject sampling--a specific individual is observed.

  • Focus is on a chain or sequence of specific behaviors.

  • Some potential for subjectivity and bias.

  • Careful and well-trained observers can usually recognize changes (“events”) in subject behavior and use these as starting and ending points for an observation period. Videography can be helpful.

  • The result is a description of the sequence of behaviors involved in an activity or interaction.

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Time Allocation

  • Randomly selected place and time and recording behaviors over a set or random period.

  • Useful when you want to find out the percent of time people are doing things (i.e., playing with kids, working, eating, etc.).

  • Several sampling problems with this approach:

    • A large representative sample is needed to generalize about how people spend their time.

    • Questions such as when, how often, and where to observe are problematic.

    • Many overcome these by visits to nonrandom locations, at random times, and/or using scan samplingor instantaneous sampling.

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2 Types of Time Allocation

  • Scan Sampling

  • Instantaneous Sampling

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Scan Sampling

  • A “census” of a large number of people leading to records of behavior at the instant they are observed.

  • Because scan sampling must be done relatively quickly (otherwise it reverts to focal subject sampling with short but variable sampling periods), it is usually restricted to discrete behaviors such as "feeding", "reading", or "resting".

  • Scan sampling is vital for estimates of time budgets: what individuals are doing at a given time.

  • If 100 individuals are observed , and 70 are resting, 25 are feeding, and 5 are interacting aggressively, the assumption is that any individual spends 70% of its time resting, 25% feeding, and 5% interacting aggressively at that time of day and/or in that place.

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Observing bears and humans at Pack Creek, AK

Ken Post (1982) observed bear-human interactions at Pack Creek.

Found that bears avoid (move away from) humans, while humans move to, or were oblivious of, bears!

Scan and Focal subject sampling, 2 observers, validated interpretations, used electronic timers, maps and observation sheets/codes.

Seasonal differences in use areas.

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Instantaneous Sampling

  • One individual is observed repeatedly, but behaviors are recorded at specified intervals.

  • The specific behavior at the instant of observation is recorded (hence the name "instantaneous sampling").

  • One might continuously observe a bird watcher. At 30 second intervals a beeper sounds: at one instant, the bird watcher might be searching for birds, at another, looking at a bird book, at another, walking on a trail.

  • The result of this type of observation is a time/activity budget --the proportion of all instantaneous observations in which an individual is engaged in various activities.

  • Preferably, several individuals of the same subject group would be observed, to get average proportions of time spent on different activities.

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Know How You Are Going To Interpret Your Observations

  • DESCRIPTIVE:Requires no inference--You see something and record it.

  • INFERENTIAL:Requires making inferences about something underlying what is observed. For example, I observe Charley working on a crossword puzzle. From this I infer (correctly?) that he is bored with research.

  • EVALUATIVE:Requires making an inferenceand a judgment from the observed behavior. e.g., I wonder whether people enjoy a good challenge. “Good Challenge” is an evaluative judgment. I observe Charley scrunching up his puzzle and infer 1) he “failed” and 2) he hates to lose!

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Field Notes

  • When making field notes you should include descriptive as well as contextual data (notes can be oral or written).

  • It is important to describe the setting and the mood in detail.

  • All things that may change behavior need to be noted. Especially reflect upon your presence.

  • Do you think that you changed the behavior noticeably?

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Recording Data

  • Recording data on blank sheets is not recommended!

  • Create data recording forms and, when possible, use simple codes to record data quickly.

  • Consider using maps to record certain data, such as movement.

  • Agree on what to observe and record as a team, practice, debrief, and refine. Practice again.

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Physical Traces

  • ACCRETION"what people have owned --and thrown away—can speak more eloquently, informatively, and truthfullyabout the lives they lead than they themselves ever may.“ (Bill Rathje 1992)