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Structure, Strengths And Weaknesses In Observation

Collecting data is a key word in any research paper. The way the researcher collects his data leads to a fruitful research or a non successful one. To collect data, thee exists several tools or instruments. It’s up to the researcher to select the best tool for his research with regards to the type of his research and its objectives, as well as the availability of the data. The latter should be gathered in highly organized methods .The quality of any research depends on the quality of the data collection. Valid data leads to valid findings and conclusions. Thus, the researcher should be very attentive, careful and selective when collecting information about his topic. Observation is one of data collection tools. In daily life we are observers, however a researcher’s observation differs from the others.

2. Part Two: Observation as a Tool of Collecting Data

“Use of observation as a measurement procedure, assigning numerals to human behavioral acts, is discussed. Observation has important advantages which makes it best suited for certain kinds of studies, and some limitations which preclude its use in others. The central problems in the use of observation are: (1) the effect of the observer on the observed, which is usually not severe and can be minimized; (2) observer inference, which is a crucial strength and a crucial weakness; and (3) the unit of behavior to be used, which involves the molar-molecular problem. The considerations in planning both unstructured and structured observation studies are discussed, including what to observe, how to record it, how to maximize validity and reliability, and how to handle the relationship between the observer and the observed. Behavior is usually sampled using event sampling or time sampling. The uses and weaknesses of rating scales to assess perceived behavior are summarized. “

KN Barker

2.1. What is Observation?

Observation is way of gathering data by watching behavior, events, or noting physical characteristics in their natural setting.

2.2. Types of Observations.

Direct (Reactive) Observation (Participant Observation)

In this kind of observation, people know they are observed. Here a little problem can appear. Knowing they are watched may cause the change of their natural behavior.

Unobtrusive Observation: (Non Participant Observation)

people ignore they are watched. The main problem with unobtrusive measures is ethical. Issues involving informed consent and invasion of privacy are paramount.

2.3 . How to plan for Observation?

1. Determine the focus: The researcher has to select a question he wants to answer via observation. Thus, he should focus on a specific area of research

2. Design a system for data collection: There are thee main ways of collecting data using observation.

Recording sheets and checklists are the most standardized way of collecting observation data and include both preset questions and responses.

Observation guides list the interactions, processes, or behaviors to be observed with space to record open-ended narrative data.

Field notes are the least standardized way of collecting observation data and do not include preset questions or responses. Field notes are open-ended narrative data that can be written or dictated onto a tape recorder.

3. Select the sites. Select an adequate number of sites to help ensure they are representative of the larger population and will provide an understanding of the situation you are observing.

4. Select the observers. The researcher may choose to be the only observer or he may want to include others in conducting observations.

5. Train the observers. It is critical that the observers are well trained in your data collection process to ensure high quality and consistent data. The level of training will vary based on the complexity of the data collection and the individual capabilities of the observers.

6. Time your observations appropriately: It is critical that a schedule should be prepared so that to observe the components of the activity that will answer question. This requires advance planning.

2.4. Structure in Observation

There are a number of different approaches to observational research. One important distinction is between more-structured (sometimes referred to as ‘systematic’) observation and less-structured (sometimes referred to as ‘ethnographic’ or ‘unstructured’) .

More-structured Observation The roots of more-structured observation are in the positivist tradition in social science, where the aim has been to emulate, to one degree or another, the approaches and procedures of the natural sciences.

The aim of more-structured observation, then, is to produce accurate quantitative

data on particular pre-specified observable behaviours or patterns of interaction.

The essential characteristic of more-structured observation is that the purposes of the observation, the categories of behaviour to be observed and the methods by which instances of behaviour are to be allocated to categories, are worked out, and clearly defined, before the data collection begins.

Less-structured Observation

Less-structured observation aims to produce detailed, qualitative descriptions of human behaviour that illuminate social meanings and shared culture. These data are combined with information from conversations, interviews and, where appropriate, documentary sources to produce an in-depth and rounded picture of the culture of the group, which places the perspectives of group members at its heart and reflects the richness and complexity of their social world. Less-structured observation is characterized by flexibility and a minimum of pre-structuring. This does not mean that the observer begins data collection with no aims and no idea of what to observe, but there is a commitment to approach observation with a relatively open mind, to minimize the influence of the observer’s preconceptions and to avoid imposing existing preconceived categories. It is not unusual, therefore, for the focus

2.5. Strengths of Observation.

First, information about the physical environment and about human behaviour can be recorded directly by the researcher without having to rely on the retrospective or anticipatory accounts of others

Secondly, the observer may be able to ‘see’ what participants cannot. Many

important features of the environment and behaviour are taken for granted by participants and may therefore be difficult for them to describe.

A final advantage is that data from observation can be a useful check on, and supplement to, information obtained from other sources. So, for example, the information given by people about their own behaviour in interviews can be compared with observation of samples of their actual behaviour.

So the advantages of observation are:

Collect data where and when an event or activity is occurring.

Does not rely on people’s willingness or ability to provide information.

Allows you to directly see what people do rather than relying on what people say they did.

2.6. Weaknesses of Observation.

There are also limitations to observation as a research method. The environment, event or behaviour of interest may be inaccessible and observation may simply be impossible (or at least very difficult).

A second limitation is that people may, consciously or unconsciously, change the way they behave because they are being observed, and therefore observational accounts of their behaviour may be inaccurate representations of how they behave ‘naturally’.

A third limitation is that observations are inevitably filtered through the interpretive lens of the observer. It must therefore be emphasized that observations can never provide us with a direct representation of reality.

Finally, it is worth emphasizing that observational research is very time-consuming, and therefore costly, when compared with other methods of data collection.

So the weaknesses of observation are:

Susceptible to observer bias.

Susceptible to the “hawthorn effect,” that is, people usually perform better when they know they are being observed, although indirect observation may decrease this problem.

Can be expensive and time-consuming compared to other data collection methods.

Does not increase your understanding of why people behave as they do.

2.8. Sample

An example of a structured observation system used to record aspects of teacher– pupil interaction in classrooms can be found in Flanders’ interaction analysis categories, as given in Box 3.1. The behaviour, observed at 3-second intervals, is coded into one of 10 categories. The schedule can give useful data on the proportion of class time taken up by different types of activity.

Box 3.1 Flanders’ interaction analysis categories (FIAC)

Teacher Talk


1 .Accepts feeling. Accepts and clarifies an attitude or the feeling tone

of a pupil in a non-threatening manner. Feelings may be positive or

negative. Predicting and recalling feelings are included.

2. Praises or encourages. Praises or encourages pupil action or behaviour. Jokes that release tension, but not at the expense of another

individual; nodding head, or saying ‘Um hm?’ or ‘go on’ are included.

3. Accepts or uses ideas of pupils. Clarifying, building or developing

ideas suggested by a pupil. Teacher extensions of pupil ideas are

included but as the teacher brings more of his/her own ideas into



4. Asks questions. Asking a question about content or procedure, based

on teacher ideas, with the intent that a pupil will answer.

5 .Lecturing. Giving facts or opinions about content or procedures;

expressing his/her own ideas, giving his/her own explanation or citing

an authority other than a pupil.

6. Giving directions. Directions, commands or orders to which a pupil is

expected to comply.

7. Criticizing or justifying authority. Statements intended to change

pupil behaviour from non-acceptable to acceptable pattern; bawling

someone out; stating why the teacher is doing what he/she is doing;

extreme self-reference.

Pupil Talk


8 .Talk by pupils in response to teacher. Teacher initiates the contact or

solicits pupil statement or structures the situation. Freedom to

express own ideas is limited.


9. Talk by pupils which they initiate. Expressing own ideas; initiating a

new topic; freedom to develop opinions and a line of thought, like

asking thoughtful questions; going beyond the existing structure.

10. Silence or confusion. Pauses, short periods of silence and periods of confusion in which communication cannot be understood by the observer.

There is no scale implied by the use of these numbers. Each number is

classificatory; it designates a particular kind of communication event. To

write these numbers down during observation is to enumerate, not to

judge a position on a scale.

Source: Flanders, 1970, p. 34

3. Part Three: Conclusion.

Observations can be used to collect information for research studies and data analysis. The observations should be made by qualified people with controlled objectives for each set of observations. The observations should be made in settings that will not influence the conduct of the observations or contaminate the observations in any way. Discussions with a specific group of people can provide valuable data to researchers.

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