What exactly are observational research methods?


(Stacey McDonald) #1

Often we (researchers, evaluators, or program staff) get information about what happened from the people participating in a program. We often ask their perceptions, feelings, and opinions. We also ask what happened. Ever get the sense that the results just don’t seem right? Maybe a little too optimistic?

Sometimes asking people directly what happened is a great way to collect data. But sometimes, people can misreport the requested info (either on purpose or not). In those cases, it might be better to observe yourself what is happening. Basically, the researcher or evaluator watches what people do, and takes notes - in a systematic way. There are many ways to approach this - more on this next week.

When might observation be useful?

  • If actual behaviour is likely to be different from what people report. When a specific behaviour (i.e. being active) is viewed as socially desirable, people have a tendency to over-estimate and over-report that behaviour (the opposite is true too - people are less likely to report ‘bad’ behaviour)
  • When the context, setting or environment might play an important role in how people are interacting/behaving
  • If topic is something that people might be unwilling to discuss
  • When you want to capture nonverbal expressions of feelings
  • When you want to understand who interacts with whom, and how
  • If you want to check how much time is spent (people have a hard time self-reporting accurately about time)

Over the next couple of Mondays, I’ll cover the basics of the observational method, including some different approaches. I am NOT an expert in using this method, so I welcome any insights or additions that others would like to add.

Observational methods pt. 2: 3 different ways to collect observational data
(Kimberly Bowman) #2

Hello! Might be helpful to elaborate a bit on the different times we might hear an evaluator use the O-word:

  • Observational as contrasted with experimental (“observational data” meaning things that occurred)…which I’ve heard most often from impact evaluators.

  • Observation as a method that is linked to anthropology as a discipline (participant observation) - which I think we’re talking about here.

  • Observation as a data-collection practice (“I observed with my eyes and counted 3 blue balls”)

I’m also not an ‘Expert’ - but thought raising this might be helpful for folks who’ve stumbled on the word in different contexts?