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Research Methods in the Social Sciences

Observational Design*

Definition and Purpose

This type of research design draws a conclusion by comparing subjects against a control group, in cases where the researcher has no control over the experiment. There are two general types of observational designs. In direct observations, people know that you are watching them. Unobtrusive measures involve any method for studying behavior where individuals do not know they are being observed. An observational study allows a useful insight into a phenomenon and avoids the ethical and practical difficulties of setting up a large and cumbersome research project.

What do these studies tell you?

  1. Observational studies are usually flexible and do not necessarily need to be structured around a hypothesis about what you expect to observe (data is emergent rather than pre-existing).
  2. The researcher is able to collect a depth of information about a particular behavior.
  3. Can reveal interrelationships among multifaceted dimensions of group interactions.
  4. You can generalize your results to real life situations.
  5. Observational research is useful for discovering what variables may be important before applying other methods like experiments.
  6. Observation researchd esigns account for the complexity of group behaviors.

What these studies don't tell you?

  1. Reliability of data is low because seeing behaviors occur over and over again may be a time consuming task and difficult to replicate.
  2. In observational research, findings may only reflect a unique sample population and, thus, cannot be generalized to other groups.
  3. There can be problems with bias as the researcher may only "see what they want to see."
  4. There is no possiblility to determine "cause and effect" relationships since nothing is manipulated.
  5. Sources or subjects may not all be equally credible.
  6. Any group that is studied is altered to some degree by the very presence of the researcher, therefore, skewing to some degree any data collected (the Heisenburg Uncertainty Principle).


Sample Observational Studies