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 analysis, 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
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.
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
Observational research is “successful” to the extent that it satisfies the research objectives by capturing relevant events and participants along with the constructs of interest. Fortunately, there are two tools – the observation guide and the observation grid – that serve to keep the observer on track towards these objectives and generally facilitate the ethnographic data gathering process.
Not unlike the outlines interviewers and moderators use to help steer the course of their in-depth interviews and group discussions, the observation guide serves two important purposes: 1) It reminds the observer of the key points of observation as well as the topics of interest associated with each, and 2) It acts as the impetus for a reflexive exercise in which the observer can reflect on his/her own relationship and contribution to the observed at any moment in time (e.g., how the observer was affected by the observations). An observation guide is an important tool regardless of the observer’s role. For each of the five observer roles* – nonparticipant (off-site or on-site) and participant (passive, participant-observer, or complete) observation – the observation guide helps to maintain the observer’s focus while also giving the observer leeway to reflect on the particular context associated with each site.
As an adjunct to the observation guide, it is recommended that ethnographic researchers also utilize an observation grid. The grid is similar to the guide in that it helps remind the observer of the events and issues of most import; however, unlike the guide, the observation grid is a spreadsheet or log of sorts that enables the observer to actually record (and record his/her own reflections of) observable events in relationship to the constructs of interest. The grid might show, for instance, the relevant constructs or research issues as column headings and the specific foci of observation as rows. In an observational study of train travel, for example, the three key research issues related to activity at the train station might be: waiting for departures, delays in departures, and boarding; and the key areas of observation would pertain to behavior, conversations heard, and contextual information such as the weather and the general mood. Like the guide, the observation grid not only ensures that the principal issues and components are captured but also encourages the observer to reflect on each aspect of his/her observations and identify the particular ways the observer is influencing (or is being influenced by) the recorded observations.
*Roller & Lavrakas, 2015. Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach. New York: Guilford Press.