Observation Research Essay

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Observation is a foundational tool that researchers use to collect descriptive information and to make knowledge claims about the physical and social world. As such, it has been a significant source of existing knowledge on phenomena ranging from the intricacies of cellular action to educational practices to human kinship systems. Observation is a practice grounded in “ocular centricity,” a vision-centered paradigm characteristic of Western culture and modernity that often emphasizes sight over other human senses. Disciplined, rigorous observation of events within their “natural” settings continues to contribute to areas central to social foundations of education such as human agency, diversity, equity, social stratification, social justice, and the relationship between schools and society. This entry provides an overview of observation from the perspectives of theory and practice.

Theoretical Perspectives

Although the classic image of participant observation is the anthropologist who travels to a remote village of “vanishing” people, immerses him or herself in tribal culture for multiple years, and records copious notes of what he or she witnesses, contemporary observation varies in practice, duration, and purpose. Its use as a method of inquiry emerges from the belief that human sight and direct eyewitness accounts are valuable, if not irreplaceable, resources for building knowledge. Direct observation and active participation in varied settings offer opportunities to witness and experience events from the perspective of insiders and pursue the question central to ethnographic fieldwork: “What’s going on here?”

Indeed, ethnographers have used participant observation as a primary data source in fieldwork since the 1920s. The broader perspective of the observer can provide a more holistic view of events and setting dynamics than the partial perspectives of individuals within the setting. It also can provide crucial data on subjects who cannot fully articulate their experiences or who feel intimidated by interviews. Also, because what people say sometimes differs dramatically from what they do, observation can enrich and clarify findings from other data sources such as interviews and documents.

Variations in theories and methods of observation make it a subject of study in its own right for methodologists interested in the art and science of conducting research. Theoretical frameworks generally shape how researchers conduct observations and thus practices have varied across historical periods and scientific discipline. For example, in the nineteenth century, reigning beliefs about the power of measurement and instrumentation meant that observation was often accompanied by measurement to confirm visual data and extend the reach of the eye. In the same time period, ethnographic studies influenced by social Darwinism often constructed indigenous and tribal peoples as simplistic and savage and Westerners as superior.

Similarly, during the seventeenth century, Robert Boyle required an “open laboratory” and a special community of male elite witnesses to validate his experiments with the air pump. Women, even when present in the laboratory, could not serve as “witnesses” because they purportedly lacked the independent and objective status to gaze with detachment and reliability. Indeed, women were excluded from the Royal Society of London for hundreds of years until the practice became a legal matter in 1945. Such practices have led scholars to ask whether observation may sometimes reveal more about the researcher than those observed.

Contemporary researchers who draw from a tradition of ethnographic naturalism argue that an objective stance is imperative in undertaking credible observation. In this view, scientists should maintain distance from the subjects of study and strive to capture as objectively as possible the events and interactions they observe. The written products of observation (jottings, diagrams, sketches, and field notes) should reflect neutral language and be free from the personal perspective, evaluation, or judgment of the researcher. In contrast, those who draw from an interpretivist or poststructuralist framework posit that the observing eye is always positioned in a social and historical context and is never neutral, innocent, or objective. The direction in which the eye travels and the interpretation of information is always intertwined with the cultural values, personal beliefs, and theoretical interests of the individual researcher. For example, explorers and naturalists who traveled the globe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries often characterized both terrain and people on their travels as “potentially exploitable” resources. What they “observed” in their quest for knowledge reflected ethnocentric and racist ideas of the period and paved the way for colonialism.

Theoretical orientation and subjective perceptions may also enrich the observation process. An observer operating from a critical theory framework might note the way a classroom power hierarchy operates and students’ strategies of resistance to it. A survivor of domestic abuse studying other survivors may have heightened empathy and insight into their experiences. An architect viewing a disaster setting may recognize structural damage that eludes the gaze of a relief worker in the same setting who is focused on threatened drinking water. Because the researcher is the instrument of observation, his or her training and personal experience can be a potential resource for developing knowledge. Theoretical perspectives influence how observers approach their fieldwork, prioritize their observations, and interpret their findings.

Typical Practice

Observers focus on concrete sensory detail, verbal and nonverbal communication, daily practices, sociohistorical context, and cultural dynamics to sculpt a portrait of “what’s going on.” Many studies use observation to gain insight into the lives of marginalized peoples and the complexity of human experience, including ethnographies of rural Iraqi women’s lives, poor and working-class youth, the devastation of Hurricane Andrew and the response of schools, street vendors’ daily lives in New York City, women living with HIV/AIDS, and Black male children’s experiences with racist educational practices.

Guidelines for the practice of observation in contemporary fieldwork also reflect principles central to social foundations of education. A primary goal that honors human diversity is the effort to capture cultural insiders’ own understanding of their experiences (emic view) rather than imposing the researchers’ framework (etic view). Contemporary observation also requires researchers to reflect on their practices, the reactive effects of their presence in the setting, and the ways in which their insider or outsider status shapes the research endeavor. This time-intensive practice requires a researcher’s advance preparation, training, and deep engagement in the setting.

Observation is grounded in a vision-centered paradigm—ocular centricity—that privileges sight over other human senses. Yet the use of observation in research is a purposeful act that requires more than the physical capacity for sight. Although the powerful filter of the human eye is central, observation is an experiential and interpretive practice that mobilizes all human senses. It involves attention to sound, timbre, and volume as children splash in a fountain or a conversation erupts into anger; it involves attention to fragrance and odor as bread bakes or wood lies rotting in the wake of a hurricane; it involves such kinetic sensory details as the texture of cloth or the warmth of a breeze; it includes elements of time and space as children rush to class or dancers move in unison to music. Integrating these elements can animate a setting and infuse observations with depth and nuance. In addition, conflicting sensory data—a cafeteria with no smell of food or laughter that accompanies a violent act—can propel the research process by alerting observers to key elements of a setting that may merit closer scrutiny.

Researchers face a number of complex choices in the observation process that shape the data collected, the findings claimed, and the knowledge ultimately created. Before entering a research site in an unfamiliar school, for example, researchers must determine what role observation can and should play in pursuing their research questions; which classrooms, hallways, or offices to observe and for how long; and the extent to which they will participate in school events. They must negotiate access to the research site and determine whether observations will be announced or covert. Within the setting, they must decide how to position themselves and where to direct their gaze; how much distance or engagement to maintain with varied teachers, students, and administrators; how to negotiate the voluminous sensory data that accompany a standard school day; and which terms and events to record in field notes.

When translating and reducing observations to print, observers must determine what to preserve, what to discard, and how best to assess and convey information to others. As fieldwork progresses and observers become integrated into daily practices, they must learn how to negotiate their emotional investments and maintain a fresh perspective to “make the familiar strange.” In addition, researchers must consider how intrusive their presence is for insiders and how this shapes findings. Choices at all stages of the observational process have conceptual, ethical, and practical dimensions that require researcher reflexivity and adaptability in fieldwork.

Observation is limited as a method by its capacity to capture only external behaviors and events rather than internal thoughts and beliefs. In practice, however, it is usually combined with other data sources to heighten understanding of phenomena and credibility of findings. The art and science of observation continues to unfold as researchers experiment with new strategies in fieldwork, philosophers of science ask new questions about research practices, and the meaning of “observation” fluctuates. These shifts will continue to shape knowledge and practice in social foundations. The relationship between observer and observed, the shifting meaning of identity and Other in an increasingly connected globe, the role of observation in new virtual and Web technologies, and the surveillance of student performance are among many issues that preoccupy scholars and have implications for observation research. Its anthropological and sociological roots ensure that observation will continue to serve inquiry as a tool of social justice and a resource for social foundations.


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  8. Whyte, W. F. (1943). Street corner society: The social structure of an Italian slum. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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