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Observation Techniques


Originally prepared by Professor Andrew Hannan.

Component now led by Dr. Peter Kelly.

© A Hannan, Faculty of Education, University of Plymouth, 2006


CONTENTS

A. Introduction

B. Examples

C. How to do it

  1. participant or non-participant
  2. gaining and maintaining access
  3. ethics and confidentiality
  4. ethnographic methods (field notes, generating insights, the nature of evidence, progressive focusing, presentation of findings)
  5. practical advice on ethnographic observation

D. Tasks

E. Further Reading


NB    

This component is intended as a supplementary set of notes to be considered alongside the 'Qualitative Research' component by Professor Peter Woods.  The 'Qualitative Research' component covers more ground and includes 'tasks' for MA Dissertation students (UoP).  To visit click here.


A. Introduction

1) Observational techniques are an important aspect of many action research studies and of case studies whether undertaken by participants or outsiders.

2) In a way all of us are already well practised in the arts of observation - we all need to observe human behaviour in our personal and professional lives, we are all familiar with the need to come to conclusions based on our observation, to generate explanations and understandings and even to come up with predictions.

3) It is important that we attempt to build on those skills that we already possess and to exploit those aspects of common sense that are of benefit.

4) However, in research we need to go beyond the subjective and impressionistic, we need to be aware of and, if possible, eliminate bias, we need to be systematic and open about our procedures so as to open them up for public scrutiny so that others may check the bases on which we reach conclusions. I shall discuss later the various approaches that might be adopted in pursuit of these aims.

5) Let me go back to a more basic question, what specific contribution can observation make to research in education? What can observational techniques provide that experiments, surveys, questionnaires or interviews can't?

Write down your own response before referring to mine, by clicking here.

6) There are those who argue that even observation should attempt to treat social interaction purely in terms of externally observable behaviour with no attempt being made to impute motive other than a consideration of the stimuli which may have occasioned certain responses. One variant of this approach is that popularised by Desmond Morris in his books such as Manwatching (1978) that attribute all human behaviour to underlying drives and patterns either biologically or socially inherited as a product of evolutionary pressures.

7) Some clinical or pseudo-clinical studies in the behaviour modification tradition are only interested in observing external behaviour where the intrinsic meaning of action to the actor is not seen as an important aspect of the analysis, eg with references to 'speech acts' or 'writing behaviour'.

8) In contrast to this are approaches that start from the assumption that social action is the product of intended and meaningful behaviour that makes reference to understandings of a shared social world.

9) For those who take such an interpretative approach, typical of symbolic interactionism, phenomenology and ethnomethodology, observation is the key method of research, often allied to open or semi-structured interviews.


B. Examples

1) Let us look at the sorts of observational techniques available and at the contexts within which they are most applicable.

2) If we wanted to find out if tutors habitually favoured male or female students with more questions, more positive responses, more attention, or whatever, we could gather the information in a fairly straight forward way by counting aspects of tutor student interaction and differentiating between males and females. We could then, perhaps, attempt to intervene by training tutors to interact in a non-gendered way and then go back to observing their teaching behaviour and in a similar way attempt to count the interactions to see if the change had been successful. Such observation could be based on a simple check list, with the observer ticking against the name of each student whenever the tutor directly interacted with him or her and then breaking down the nature of that interaction with a further tick into one of a number of boxes such as 'praise', 'reprimand', etc. This would allow the researcher to compute the percentages of negative and positive interactions for males and females.

What would be the limitations of this method? What would it be unable to tell us? Is it purely objective or does it require some subjective judgement and interpretation of intent and meaning?

Write down your own response before referring to mine, by clicking here.

3) One of the points at issue here is whether it is best for observers to immerse themselves in 'the field' first and then generate categories to order their at first unstructured observations, or whether it is best to walk in with research 'instruments' designed by other researchers which can then be applied in a seemingly unproblematic manner. Which is the best technique depends on the nature of the research undertaken, the former method being better for exploratory case studies and the latter for large-scale surveys, or as a means of providing wider reference points for more qualitative small-scale enquiry.

4) The most famous example of a structured observation schedule for classroom research is the Flanders Interaction Analysis Category System (FIAC, see Flanders, N, 1970, Analyzing Teaching Behaviour) which was used in an adapted fashion by the ORACLE researchers looking at primary classrooms in the UK (see Galton, M and Simon B, eds., 1980, Progress and Performance in the Primary Classroom, Galton, M et al, 1999 Inside the Primary Classroom: 20 Years On, Simon, B and Willcocks, J, 1981, Research and Practice in the Primary Classroom). For a good description of the methods involved and examples of schedules used see Croll, P, 1986, Systematic Classroom Observation.

5) Other researchers prefer to rely on recording what goes on, in the classroom and other arenas, using videos, still photography, tape recorders, verbatim or selective field notes or memory, or a combination of one or more of these. The difficulty with all these methods is that the problem of what to do with all the data so collected is far more pressing than in the case of the structured observation schedules where the categories are pre-ordained and the task is simply one of computation and statistical analysis.

6) The problem is compounded by the more sophisticated the technology in that the more that is recorded the more immense the task of analysis, which often involves the very time consuming business of transcription. The data are certainly richer and more faithful to the nature of the interaction, but the researcher often resorts to pretty crude devices of content analysis faced by the seeming infinity of what has been observed. Reality is multi-layered and 'what happened' is the product of a wide range of influences and contributors and is open to a variety of interpretations from different perspectives.

7) Again, the researcher has to be guided by the nature of the research focus in order to home in on the important information, although it is not an easy task to separate the incidental from the essential.

8) Thus, in my own PhD research, I was interested in the ways in which issues came to be defined as 'problems' for the school I was studying, how those problems led to 'conflicts' between staff and the impact those conflicts had on school 'policy'. I could have merely interviewed or questionnaired staff on such issues, but I decided that such devices were necessary but not sufficient. I needed to observe the process in action, how the problems arose, how the discussion of them reflected different staff interests and ideologies and the ways in which decisions were made within a hierarchically structured process which brought about changes in school policy. In short, I was interested in what Stephen Ball has come to call The Micro-Politics of the School (l987). I therefore spent time observing in classrooms, hallways, and staff rooms, and, crucially, in staff meetings where decisions were made which became school policy and came to structure events in the school as a whole.

9) The observation of such contexts provided a means of seeing the school dynamically and of finding out about people's views as expressed actively within the micro-political world of the decision-making process, rather than passively in response to an interview or questionnaire question. I would argue that such devices, or a combination of such techniques, gave me access to much more of the reality I was attempting to research.


C. How to do it

Let me focus on a number of aspects, viz:

  1. participant or non-participant

  2. gaining and maintaining access

  3. ethics and confidentiality

  4. ethnographic methods (field notes, generating insights, the nature of evidence, progressive focusing, presentation of findings)

  5. practical advice on ethnographic observation

 

1) Participant or non-participant.

As a participant you are an actor with a certain amount of power and this will inevitably affect how others see you and how you see them. It is therefore important that you try and gauge the extent to which your observations may be structured by your participation, eg is it impossible for you as a teacher/tutor to get real access to the pupils'/students' perspectives? You need to seek ways of overcoming such restrictions, eg getting pupils/students to observe one another (see an example using primary age pupils in Pollard, A, 1985, The Social World of the Primary School, chapter 4). You need to get others to check your observations and interpretations, e.g. by triangulation (seeking evidence from other sources uninfluenced by you such as documents, or gathering data through other devices ensuring anonymity such as questionnaires, or by taking your field notes and analyses back to the participants and asking them to comment on the accuracy of your findings).

The more you can make the taken-for-granted world of your own actions strange, the better. This is best done by widening your field of observation to look at other cases or by getting others to look at what you do. What's commonplace to you is strange for others and vice versa. It may seem preferable to do your research purely as an outsider but this is often more difficult than it seems because the presence of any observer is part of the scene and inevitably influences behaviour (which is even true of impersonal recording devices). What we have here, though, is a matter of degree. The choice is between 'going native' and maintaining distance. The trade off is between the advantages of shared perspective likely to be gained from full participation in role and the disadvantages of failing to make problematic the taken-for-granted assumptions made by actors in that world.

There are numerous studies of education which illustrate the different resolutions of this dilemma available, e.g. Willis, P, 1977, Learning to Labour, Patrick, J, 1975, A Glasgow Gang Observed, Hargreaves, D, 1967, Social Relations in a Secondary School, Lacey, C, 1970, Hightown Grammar. There is a very good discussion of such issues in Woods, P, 1986, Inside Schools.

There are also some classic American studies of the medical world making use of participant and other forms of observation, such as Goffman, E, 1968, Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Medical Patients and Other Inmates, Strauss, A et al, 1964, Psychiatric Ideologies and Institutions, and Becker, H et al, 1961, Boys in White: Student Culture in Medical School. For a British example, see Atkinson, P 'In cold blood: bedside teaching in a medical school' in Chanan, G and Delamont, S, eds, 1975, Frontiers of Classroom Research.

The Becker and Atkinson references above concern a particular field of Higher Education (medical schools). Becker, H et al, 1968, Making the Grade: The Academic Side of College Life is a case study of a US college that focuses on student perspectives.

 

2) Access - getting in and staying in.

Generally speaking, people are quite flattered by attention and this sometimes overcomes any inhibitions so that matters quite secret are paraded before the observer with seeming abandon. At other times, particularly where an issue has been the subject of recent press attention, the shutters go up and there is no way in. All you can do in such circumstances is to give up and try something else likely to be more productive - you haven't the time to spend on lengthy negotiation. Crucial to the business of initially gaining access is the whole matter of assurances of confidentiality, anonymity, etc, which I consider below. Your stance, once granted access, depends on how much of an active participant you want to be in the arena you are observing - the more obviously committed you are to one particular stance or ideology the more others will take this into account when revealing their thoughts or their actions to you. If all involved can accept you without risk to their interests you get maximum access, but this may involve you in compromising your principles, if not breaking the law!

 

3) Ethics and Confidentiality.

Like all other issues to do with morality, the debates here are endless. You need to comply with the University of Plymouth requirements (see the section on ethics in the Beginning Research component). I recommend promising as much anonymity as possible and pledging as much confidentiality as necessary for the research to go ahead without compromising its objectives. Disguising the institution, staff and students from outsiders is a lot easier, however, than doing so internally. Be careful about giving the participants a veto over what you write; try and get them to accept anonymity or a right of reply or comment instead. The biggest dilemma for the observer, per se, is what to do about what he/she observes, particularly when he/she has decided to adopt a neutral stance and an attempt is being made to obtain or protect access. Decisions have to be made about the relative importance of the study vis-à-vis other moral considerations. This is particularly true for a teacher as observer who is privy to acts of pupil misbehaviour!

 

4) Ethnography.

The principal method employed by all ethnographers is the collection of field notes. These may include both direct observation and reflections on what has been observed. Again, Woods (l986) is very helpful on what is involved. I'd recommend a daily record of things observed, including records taken at the same time as the events where possible, and comments written about their significance as well as decisions made by the observer on methodology and any theoretical insights generated, tested, confirmed, disproved. The process of generating insights is a difficult one, in that it requires the researcher to be analytical. In ethnographic observation the researcher is the research instrument and he/she must make decisions about how and what to sample and about issues which currently require attention. The inductive method is all about coming up with ideas from the data which are then explored further in different contexts (see Glaser, B and Strauss, A, 1967, The Discovery of Grounded Theory). The idea is that theories, hypotheses, insights, should emerge from the observations, so that they are grounded in observed experience. This may involve a process of progressive focusing where the observer begins to sort out the peripheral from the central factors involved and directs his/her attention to looking at key contexts for the vital evidence. Ethnographic accounts do not rely on statistical tables, although it is possible to make use of computers to help in the organisation of data and the process of generating insights, looking for patterns, etc. (For details of current qualitative data analysis software visit http://www.soc.surrey.ac.uk/caqdas/. N6 and NVivo (QSR) are available to all those who are registered University of Plymouth users via the file server.  Both of these come with a built-in tutorial that will teach you how to use them.)

Writing up ethnography is very like telling a story, except that the writer must make apparent the devices used to construct the account and must provide evidence for the conclusions reached. That evidence needs to be presented in a way which goes beyond a mere illustration of the points made. The reader has to be given access to material that allows him/her to check the interpretations used by the observer. This may involve the presentation of great chunks of field notes, and often necessitates the sort of triangulation mentioned earlier. Often, the main body of the research report includes snippets from the field notes whereas more representative longer chunks detailing crucial instances are given in an appendix. All the time the ethnographer has to self-consciously justify the account offered. A crucial chapter in any ethnographic account is a description of the methodology employed - those wishing to adopt such an approach should keep field notes about their own methodological dilemmas and choices. At least ethnography is aware of its limitations, it has to make a claim to relevance, it has to substantiate its right to be listened to. Other methods of research often fail to make as explicit the bases of their claims to knowledge.

5) Practical advice on ethnographic observation

There follows an extract from Research Communiqué number 29 from Denis Hayes (University of Plymouth, September 2006), which draws on Delamont (2002).


With respect to observational data Delamont describes it as her favourite kind of data collection and regrets the fact that owing to time pressures she has to spend more time interviewing and examining documents than simply sitting and watching. Her enthusiasm for this aspect of research is reflected in the fact that she allocates nine pages of text to the subject (pp. 130-8) subdivided into:

  • What to look at

  • How to observe

  • Where and when to look

  • What to record


In terms of what to look at Delamont accepts that unless the research project has pre-specified objectives it is difficult to be precise, though she suggests that following an initial period of relatively unfocused watching it is essential to start paying close attention to a selective set of phenomena (p. 130/1). In an ethnographic study it may be appropriate to observe clothing worn by participants, furniture arrangement, items employed and used, etc. Over the period of observation some indication about time spent, physical movement of players, handling of equipment/resources and recording verbatim speech (as far as possible) is often desirable. In an important sense it does not matter what the observer looks at, as long as the gaze is focused on some person, object or location in a thoughtful, principles way (p. 132).

In terms of how to observe, the author refers to work by Wolcott (1981), commending it as the best paper she knows on how to observe. Wolcott proposes four strategies for deciding what to look at and how to look:

  • Observations by broad sweep

  • Observations of nothing in particular

  • Searching for paradoxes

  • Searching for the problem(s) facing the group
     

The broad sweep approach usually has two outcomes: first, it makes the researcher aware of the need for selectivity; second, it makes the researcher aware of what really matters to him/her
The observations of nothing in particular approach is based on ‘wait and see what jumps out’ and is likened to watching for a blip on a radar screen that indicates unusual activity [You will know it when you see it!]

The two ‘searching’ approaches are useful for fighting familiarity. Delamont offers an example of a paradox in a study that found that children drew more during ordinary lessons than they did during art lessons! An example of working out participants’ problems is found in studies of medical students. Wolcott also mentions a fifth approach in which the researcher is trained in the techniques used by participants as away to better understand events and knowing how to look.

Where and when to look
Delamont comments that choosing where and when to look is also a matter of systematic, principles, reflexive decision-making (p. 134). She draws from a study on how children with learning difficulties were integrated into ordinary schools. Observations took place in three contexts:

  • Where pupils were free to choose both their activities and their companion (e.g. playground)

  • Where large groups of children were relatively free to mingle within broad categories (e.g. assembly; lunch sittings; communal singing)

  • Where small groups of pupils were in close proximity (notably in lessons)


Other key places for observation may include corridors and staff rooms. She makes special note of the prevalence of ‘rhetorical divisions’ between members of the same group; folklore; jokes; narrative; atrocity stories; serious educational discussion; barbed comments. The alert researcher does not neglect the urban legends or other folklore in playground and staff room (p. 137).

Finally, in terms of what to record Delamont recommends that recording during observation should be carried out as unobtrusively as possible, ideally noting verbatim speech or at least some key words/phrases that will serve to jog the memory later. Nevertheless, ten minutes of good observation, well written up is worth an hour’s notes lying forgotten in an unopened notebook (p. 138). She reminds the reader that it is essential to constantly analyse and interpret data; or it may become so complex, convoluted and confusing that it is fails to serve any purpose. You have been warned!

 


D. Tasks

Tasks, once completed, should be sent to resined@plymouth.ac.uk, making clear:

It will then be passed on to the component leader (and copied to your supervisor). The component leader will get back to you with comments and advice which we hope will be educative and which will help you in preparing your dissertation proposal once you are ready. (Remember that these tasks are formative and that it is the proposal which forms the summative assessment for the MERS501 (resined) module.) This email address is checked daily so please use it for all correspondence about RESINED other than that directed to particular individuals for specific reasons.

 

Before undertaking either of the tasks for this component (B or C) you might like to consider the more general task here:

 

TASK B (DATA COLLECTION)

 

TASK C (DATA ANALYSIS)

 

E. Further Reading

NB    See especially those items highlighted in bold

CD-ROM

Barrett, Elizabeth; Lally, Vic; Purcell, S & Thresh, Robert (1999) Signposts for Educational Research CD-ROM: A Multimedia Resource for the Beginning Researcher.  Sage Publications, London. 

Find the section on Observation, by going to the 'Departure Lounge', clicking on 'Ready to Depart', then 'Travelogues' (on the world map) and finally 'Observation'.

Atkinson, P. (1975) In cold blood: bedside teaching in a medical school, in Chanan, G and Delamont, S, eds, Frontiers of Classroom Research.

Ball, S. (1987) The Micro-Politics of the School.

Becker, H; Geer, B.; Hughes, C. and Strauss, A. (1961) Boys in White: Student Culture in Medical School.

Becker, H; Geer, B. and Hughes, C.  (1968) Making the Grade: The Academic Side of College Life.

Croll, P. 1(986) Systematic Classroom Observation, (see pages 84-93 on 'Observing in Classrooms').

Delamont, S. (2002) Fieldwork in Educational Settings.

Flanders, N. (1970) Analyzing Teaching Behavior.

Galton, M. and Simon B., eds., (1980) Progress and Performance in the Primary Classroom

Galton, M; Hargreaves, L.; Comber, C.; Pell, T.; and Wall, D, (1999) Inside the Primary Classroom: 20 Years On.

Glaser, B. and Strauss, A. (1967) The Discovery of Grounded Theory.

Goffman, E. (1968) Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Medical Patients and Other Inmates.

Hargreaves, D. (1967) Social Relations in a Secondary School.

Hopkins, D. (1993) A Teacher's Guide to Classroom Research  (see Chapter 7 on 'Methods of Observation in Classroom Research').

Lacey, C. (1970) Hightown Grammar.

Morris, D. (1978) Manwatching.

Patrick, J. (1975) A Glasgow Gang Observed.

Pollard, A. (1985) The Social World of the Primary School (see especially chapter 4).

Simon, B. and Willcocks, J. (1981) Research and Practice in the Primary Classroom.

Simpson, M. and Tuson, J. (1995) Using Observations in Small-Scale Research: a beginner's guide, SCRE.  For details visit: http://www.scre.ac.uk/cat/res_guides.html

Strauss, A.; Schatzmann, L.; Bucher, R.; Ehrlich, D. and Sabshin, M. (1964)  Psychiatric Ideologies and Institutions.

Willis, P. (1977) Learning to Labour.

Wolcott, H. F. (1981) ‘Confessions of a trained observer’, in T. S. Popkewitz and B. R. Tabachnik (Eds.) The Study of Schooling.

Woods, P. (1986) Inside Schools.

 

Beginning Research | Action Research | Case Study | Interviews | Observation Techniques | Education Research in the Postmodern

Evaluation Research in Education | NarrativePresentations | Qualitative Research | Quantitative Methods | Questionnaires | Writing up Research

 

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