Observation

Supporting Observational Research

The following is a modified excerpt from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp. 217-219) which is a qualitative methods text covering in-depth interviews, focus group discussions, ethnography, qualitative content analysis, case study, and narrative research.

An important element in the Total Quality Framework Analyzability component is Verification, i.e., taking steps to establish some level of support for the data gathered in order to move the researcher closer to achieving high quality outcomes. The verificationSupporting qualitative data tools at the ethnographer’s disposal go beyond those identified for the in-depth interview (IDI) and group discussion methods in that they include the technique of expanded observation. For example, Lincoln and Guba (1985) stated that it is “more likely that credible findings and interpretations” will come from ethnographic data with “prolonged engagement” in the field and “persistent observation” (p. 301). The former refers to spending adequate time at an observation site to experience the breadth of stimuli and activities relevant to the research, and the purpose of the latter (i.e., persistent observation) is “to identify those characteristics and elements in the situation that are most relevant to the problem or issue” (p. 304)—that is, to provide a depth of understanding of the “salient factors.” Both prolonged engagement and persistent observation speak to the idea of expanding observation in terms of time as well as diligence in exploring variables as they emerge in the observation. Although expanding observations in this way may be unrealistic due to the realities of deadlines and research funding, it is an important verification approach unique to ethnography. When practicable, it is recommended that researchers maximize the time allotted for observation and train observers to look for the unexpected or examine more closely seemingly minor occurrences or variables that may ultimately support (or contradict) the observer’s dominant understanding.

The ultimate usefulness of expanded observation is not unlike deviant or negative case analysis (see earlier link). In both instances, the goal is to identify and investigate observational events (or particular variables in these events) that defy explanation or otherwise contradict the general patterns or themes that appear to be emerging from the data. For example, a researcher conducting in-home nonparticipant observations of young mothers Read Full Text

Ethnography: Mitigating Observer Bias

The following is a modified excerpt from Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach (Roller & Lavrakas, 2015, pp. 207-212).

In qualitative research, the researcher – including the in-depth interviewer, focus group moderator, coder in content Observationanalysis, and observer – is the instrument, meaning that the qualitative researcher wields substantial control in the design content, the gathering of data, the outcomes, and interpretation of the research.  Ethnography is no different in that the observer – albeit not controlling participants’ natural environment – plays a central role in creating the data for the study by way of recording observations.  In this respect, the credibility of an ethnographic study essentially rests on the observer’s ability to identify and record the relevant observations.

The necessary observer skills have been discussed elsewhere in Research Design Review – for example, “The Importance of Analytical Sensibilities to Observation in Ethnography.” Without these skills, an observer has the potential for biasing the data which in turn will negatively impact the analysis, interpretation, transferability, and ultimate usefulness of an ethnographic study.  The potential for bias exists regardless of observer role. An offsite, non-participant observer may knowingly or not impose subjective values on an observed event – e.g., ignoring certain comments the observer finds personally offensive in a study of an online forum discussing alcohol use – while an onsite observer, operating either overtly or covertly, may bias results by way of Read Full Text

The Five Observer Roles in Ethnography

There are many variations of observational research, both off-and online, but central to the ethnographic approach is the role of the observer. This role has to do with both the physical as well as the psychological or emotional distance between the observer and the observed, and can range from remote off-site observation to complete immersion and participation in the study activities.

Broadly speaking, the observer is conducting either nonparticipant or participant observation. In nonparticipant observation, the observer may be either off- or onsite; and, in participant observation, the observer may be passive, a participant-observer, or a complete participant. Importantly, the observer may switch roles in the course of a study, e.g., moving from an on-site nonparticipant observer to a passive observer, then a participant-observer, and then a complete participant. These five observer roles are depicted below.

ethnography observer roles

Nonparticipant Observation

As a nonparticipant, the observer is observing in an unobtrusive manner either remotely (off-site) or within the study environment (onsite). An off-site nonparticipant observation might be the study of an online community or forum without any Read Full Text