Observational Research explained
Observational research: this article explains the concept of observational research in a practical way. The article begins with an introduction and the general definition of the term, followed by an explanation of why observational research is important, its advantages and disadvantages, and a practical example. Enjoy reading!
What is observational research?
Observational research is a method of collecting data by simply observing and recording the behavior of individuals, animals or objects in their natural environment.
It offers researchers insights into human and animal behavior, revealing patterns and dynamics that would otherwise go unnoticed.
This article explores the definition, types, advantages, and disadvantages of observational research. Several examples, including its application in market research, will show you how this approach improves our human understanding of the world.
Observational research: collecting insights unobtrusively
Definition of Observational Research
Observational studies serve as a means of answering research questions through careful observation of subjects, without any interference or manipulation by the researcher.
Unlike traditional experiments, these studies lack control and treatment groups, allowing researchers to collect data in a natural setting without imposing predetermined conditions.
Observational studies are generally of a qualitative nature, with both exploratory and explanatory purposes, providing insight into the complexity of particular phenomena.
While quantitative observational studies also exist, they are less common compared to the qualitative studies.
Observational research is widely used in disciplines such as the exact sciences, medicine and social sciences.
Often, ethical or practical considerations prohibit researchers from conducting controlled experiments, leading them to opt for observational studies instead.
The lack of control and treatment groups can pose challenges in drawing conclusions. The risk of confounding variables and observer bias affecting the analysis is high, highlighting the importance of careful interpretation.
Types of observational research
There are different types of observational research that can be used, depending on the research question and the nature of the phenomenon being studied.
Some common types of observational research are:
In naturalistic observation, researchers observe participants in their natural environment, without any interference or disturbance. The aim is to study the behavior and interactions of individuals or groups as they occur in their natural environment.
In structured observation, a predetermined set of behaviors or variables is observed and systematically recorded.
The researchers use specific behavioral categories or measurement tools to collect data.
Participant observation means that the researcher actively participates in the activities or interactions of the participants while they are being observed.
This gives the researcher a deeper insight into the experience and perspectives of the participants.
In the case of a covert observational study, the researcher tries to make himself known to the participants as little as possible.
They observe and record behavior without the participants being aware of the observation. This minimizes the risk of deviant behaviour.
In cross-sectional studies, data is collected at a single point in time or over a short period of time.
The goal is to get a snapshot of the behavior or phenomenon being studied.
Longitudinal studies involve following and observing participants over a longer period of time. This makes it possible to identify and analyze changes in behavior or patterns over time.
Choosing the right type of observational study depends on the research question, the aim of the study and the available resources and time. Each type has its own strengths and weaknesses and can be adapted to the specific needs of the research.
Steps in observational research
Below you will find the steps that are followed when setting up an observational research.
Step 1: determine research topic and objectives
The first step involves determining the phenomenon to be observed and the reasons why it is important. Observational studies are especially suitable when an experiment is not an option for practical or ethical reasons. The research topic may also depend on natural behaviour.
As an example, let’s consider a researcher who is interested in the interactions of teens in their social situations. The researcher wants to investigate whether having a smartphone influences the social interactions of the teenagers. Conducting an experiment can be tricky because smartphone use should not be manipulated.
Step 2: choose the type of observation and techniques
Think about what needs to be observed. Does the researcher go in without preconceived notion? Is there another research method that makes more sense to use? Is it important for the analysis that the researcher is present during the observation? If so, a covert observation is already ruled out.
In the example described earlier, several options are possible. The observations could be performed by observing the teens in different situations. It may also be considered to have the observer join a social group and actively participate in their interactions while the group is being observed. Hidden cameras can also be used to record teens’ social interactions in a controlled environment.
Step 3: set up the observational study
There are a number of things to consider before starting the observation.
First, you need to plan ahead. If the participants are observed in a social setting such as community centers or schools, clear agreements should be made and permission should be given. Informed consent might be required. Decide in advance the observational research methods you will use for data collection. Are notes taken? Or video images or audio recordings?
Step 4: before the observation
Once the type of observation has been chosen, the research technique has been decided on and the correct time and place have been determined, it is time to conduct the observation.
In the example, it can be considered to observe two situations, for example one with smartphones and one without smartphones. When conducting the observation, it is important to take confounding variables into account.
Step 5: analyzing data
After completing the observation, it is important to immediately record the first clues, thoughts and impressions. If the observation has been recorded, this recording must be transcribed. Subsequently, a thematic or content analysis must be carried out.
Observations are often exploratory and have an open character. That is why this analysis fits well with this method.
Step 6: discuss next steps
Observational studies are generally exploratory in nature and therefore usually do not immediately yield definitive conclusions. This is mainly because of the risk of observational bias and confounding variables. If the researcher is satisfied with the conclusions that have been reached, it may be useful to switch to another research method, like an experiment.
Examples of observational research
Observational research has led to several revolutionary results that have forever changed our understanding of the world and human behavior.
Some examples of this are:
Development of Darwin’s theory of evolution
Charles Darwin used observational research during his travels on the ship HMS Beagle. Observations of various animal species in their natural environment, such as birds in the Galapagos Islands, allowed Darwin to gather evidence for his theory of evolution.
This revolutionary theory has completely changed the understanding of the origin and diversity of species of creatures.
Discovery of penicillin
Sir Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered the effect of penicillin, a revolutionary antibiotic, through observational research.
He observed that a fungus called Penicillium notatum destroyed bacteria in a petri dish.
This discovery laid the foundation for the development of modern antibiotics and has had an enormous impact on medicine and the treatment of infectious diseases.
Confirmation of Einstein’s theory of relativity
During a solar eclipse in 1919, Arthur Eddington and his team conducted observational research to test the predictions of Einstein’s general theory of relativity.
By observing the positions of stars during the eclipse, they were able to confirm the deflection of light by the sun’s gravity. This experimental evidence supported Einstein’s theory and marked a revolutionary breakthrough in physics.
Research into the effects of smoking on health
One of the most influential observational studies was the study of the relationship between smoking and health problems, particularly lung cancer.
By observing large groups of smokers over a long period of time and collecting data on their smoking behavior and health outcomes, it was shown that there is a strong association between smoking and the risk of lung cancer.
These findings have led to a better understanding of the harmful effects of smoking and have contributed to the promotion of anti-smoking measures and health education.
Pros and cons
Observational research has several advantages and disadvantages that need to be considered before choosing the right research approach.
Advantages of observational research
By observing people, animals or objects in their natural environment, researchers can study authentic behavior.
That means that the observations take place in real situations and not artificial laboratory conditions.
This allows researchers to study behavior as it actually occurs. This increases scientific validity.
Observational research offers the opportunity to collect detailed information about behaviour, interactions and context.
Researchers can observe specific behaviors such as nonverbal cues, responses to stimuli, and social dynamics. This leads to a deep understanding of the phenomenon being studied.
Observational research can be adapted to different research questions and contexts. Researchers can tailor the observations to the specific situations and variables they want to study. This gives them the flexibility to focus on specific aspects of behaviour, for example.
Disadvantages of observational research
In observational research, researchers have limited control over the conditions and variables they observe. They cannot perform experimental manipulations or control specific environmental factors.
Observer bias refers to the subjective interpretation of the observations by the researcher. Researchers may unconsciously project their own biases, expectations, or interpretations onto the observed behaviors. This could jeopardize the objectivity of the investigation.
Observational research can be time consuming, especially when it comes to long-term observations or following individuals or groups over a longer period of time. Observing, documenting and analyzing behavior takes time and effort. That can be a problem, as resources are often scarce.
Now it’s your turn
What do you think? Do you recognize the explanation about observational research? Are you familiar with observational research? What do you think are the main benefits of observational research? Have you ever read or experienced an observational study that has given you new insights? Do you have tips or other comments?
Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.
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- Jepsen, P., Johnsen, S. P., Gillman, M. W., & Sørensen, H. T. (2004). Interpretation of observational studies. Heart, 90(8), 956-960.
- Ligthelm, R. J., Borzì, V., Gumprecht, J., Kawamori, R., Wenying, Y., & Valensi, P. (2007). Importance of observational studies in clinical practice. Clinical therapeutics, 29(6), 1284-1292.
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Original publication date: 10/17/2023 | Last update: 10/17/2023
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