The observation method is the most commonly used method specially in studies relating to behavioural sciences. In a way we all observe things around us, but this sort of observation is not scientific observation. Observation becomes a scientific tool and the method of data collection for the researcher, when it serves a formulated research purpose, is systematically planned and recorded and is subjected to checks and controls on validity and reliability. Under the observation method, the information is sought by way of investigator‘s own direct observation without asking from the respondent. For instance, in a study relating to consumer behaviour, the
investigator instead of asking the brand of wrist watch used by the respondent, may himself look at the watch. The main advantage of this method is that subjective bias is eliminated, if observation is done accurately. Secondly, the information obtained under this method relates to what is currently happening; it is not complicated by either the past behaviour or future intentions or attitudes.
Thirdly, this method is independent of respondents‘ willingness to respond and as such is relatively less demanding of active cooperation on the part of respondents as happens to be the case in the interview or the questionnaire method. This method is particularly suitable in studies which deal with subjects (i.e., respondents) who are not capable of giving verbal reports of their feelings for one reason or the other However, observation method has various limitations. Firstly, it is an expensive method. Secondly, the information provided by this method is very limited. Thirdly, sometimes unforeseen factors may interfere with the observational task. At times, the fact that some people are rarely accessible to direct observation creates obstacle for this method to collect data effectively.
While using this method, the researcher should keep in mind things like: What should be observed? How the observations should be recorded? Or how the accuracy of observation can be ensured? In case the observation is characterised by a careful definition of the units to be observed, the style of recording the observed information, standardised conditions of observation and the selection of pertinent data of observation, then the observation is called as structured observation. But when observation is to take place without these characteristics to be thought of in advance, the same is termed as unstructured observation. Structured observation is considered appropriate in descriptive studies, whereas in an exploratory study the observational procedure is most likely to be relatively unstructured.
We often talk about participant and non-participant types of observation in the context of studies, particularly of social sciences. This distinction depends upon the observer‘s sharing or not sharing the life of the group he is observing. If the observer observes by making himself, more or less, a member of the group he is observing so that he can experience what the members of the group experience, the observation is called as the participant observation. But when the observer observes as a detached emissary without any attempt on his part to experience through participation what others feel, the observation of this type is often termed as non-participant
observation. (When the observer is observing in such a manner that his presence may be unknown to the people he is observing, such an observation is described as disguised observation.)
There are several merits of the participant type of observation:
- The researcher is enabled to record the natural behaviour of the group.
- The researcher can even gather information which could not easily be obtained if he observes in a disinterested fashion.
- The researcher can even verify the truth of statements made by informants in the context of a questionnaire or a schedule. But there are also certain demerits of this type of observation viz., the observer may lose the objectivity to the extent he participates emotionally; the problem of observation-control is not solved; and it may narrow-down the researcher‘s range of experience.
Sometimes we talk of controlled and uncontrolled observation. If the observation takes place in the natural setting, it may be termed as uncontrolled observation, but when observation takes place according to definite pre-arranged plans, involving experimental procedure, the same is then termed controlled observation. In non-controlled observation, no attempt is made to use precision instruments. The major aim of this type of observation is to get a spontaneous picture of life and persons. It has a tendency to supply naturalness and completeness of behaviour, allowing sufficient time for observing it. But in controlled observation, we use mechanical (or precision) instruments as aids to accuracy and standardisation. Such observation has a tendency to supply formalised data upon which generalisations can be built with some degree of assurance. The main pitfall of non-controlled observation is that of subjective interpretation.
There is also the danger of having the feeling that we know more about the observed phenomena than we actually do. Generally, controlled observation takes place in various experiments that are carried out in a laboratory or under controlled conditions, whereas uncontrolled observation is resorted to in case of exploratory researches.