Section 6.3: Observational Research

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Think about how you figure out what your friends are feeling. Sometimes you ask them, but other times, you just watch their actions, right? That’s a bit like how social scientists can learn about people and societies. Instead of asking questions like in surveys, they simply observe.

Observational Research vs. Survey Research

Now, picture two scientists trying to learn about a group of animals. One scientist asks the animals questions (which is pretty funny if you imagine it!), while the other scientist sits quietly and watches what the animals do. The one who’s watching is like an observational researcher. They’re getting information just by looking, which can sometimes be better than asking questions—especially if the questions are about something the animals might want to hide, like if they took an extra snack when no one was looking.

Why Observe?

🔍 Reflect: Have you ever noticed something that someone wouldn’t admit if you asked them? Why do you think watching what they do might tell you more than asking them?

Structured Observations

Structured observations are like playing a game where you know the rules beforehand. The researcher decides which behaviors to track and then counts how often they happen. It’s like keeping score in a game—very organized and great for when you want numbers to analyze.

Unstructured Observations

But sometimes, researchers are like explorers in a new place. They don’t know what to expect, so they can’t just count things. They have to watch everything and take notes, hoping to understand the new “culture” they’re observing. This is what unstructured observations are all about—being open to learning whatever comes up, without a strict plan in place.

Anthropologists do this a lot. They might live in a new place for a while, watching how people live and interact, without having a specific checklist. It’s like going to a new school and watching how things work before you jump in.

So, whether it’s counting specific actions or just watching life unfold, observational research has its own set of tools to help social scientists learn about the world.

Exploring the World as It Is: Natural Observations

Natural Settings vs. Lab Experiments

Imagine you’re watching animals in the wild versus watching them in a zoo. That’s a bit like the difference between doing research out in the world, in its natural setting, and doing it in a lab. In a natural setting, researchers let the world work on its own without stepping in to change things. It’s like watching a movie and seeing the story unfold on its own.

Why Natural and Not Experimental?

Now, why would a researcher choose to be hands-off? Well, think about it: If a scientist wanted to learn about something difficult or even dangerous—like what makes people act unfairly—they can’t just make that happen; it wouldn’t be right. So, instead of creating these situations (like they would in experiments), they find places where these things are already happening and then watch and learn.

🔍 Reflect: Can you think of a situation where it would be wrong to create a problem just to see what happens? How might watching real situations be better?

The Challenge of Observing Naturally

There’s a tricky part, though. When researchers just watch without controlling anything, it’s hard for them to be sure about what’s causing what they’re seeing. It’s like trying to figure out who started a rumor by only watching how it spreads—it’s tough to pinpoint the source. That’s why this kind of research is really good at describing what’s going on, but not so great at saying for sure what caused it.

In the end, watching life in its natural setting gives social scientists a real-world view that they just can’t get in a lab. It’s about capturing the story as it happens, with all its complex twists and turns.

Measuring the Hard-to-Measure

What Are Scales?

Imagine trying to measure something like ‘coolness.’ There’s no ruler or thermometer for that, right? That’s the challenge social scientists face with abstract things like intelligence or happiness. You can’t just ask one question to measure them—it’s not enough.

The Intelligence Example

Take intelligence, for instance. We kind of know what it means, but pinning it down is tough. That’s why, instead of one big question, psychologists ask a bunch of smaller ones in an IQ test. By looking at all the answers together, they get a clearer picture of someone’s intelligence. This bunch of questions that adds up to one score is what we call a ‘scale.’

Standardized Scales

When scales are really well-made and tested, like some famous personality tests, they become ‘standardized scales.’ These are the ones you might hear about or even take at school, like those that measure different abilities or traits.

Likert Scales: Agree or Disagree?

Now, one special tool that researchers use is the Likert scale. It’s like a survey where you’re asked if you agree with certain statements, and you can say ‘Strongly Agree,’ ‘Agree,’ ‘Neutral,’ ‘Disagree,’ or ‘Strongly Disagree.’ It’s a way to measure your opinion or feeling about something, and it’s super common in all kinds of research.

By giving a number to each response, from ‘Strongly Agree’ to ‘Strongly Disagree,’ researchers can turn your opinions into data they can work with. That’s how they can take something as complex as how much you like a song and turn it into a score they can analyze.

🔍 Reflect: Have you ever taken a quiz that asked how much you agree with certain statements? How do you think your answers helped the person who made the quiz understand your views?

The Watcher Who Doesn’t Interfere

Nonparticipant Observation: The Invisible Researcher

Imagine being a fly on the wall in your own home, seeing everything but not being part of it. That’s what nonparticipant observation is like for researchers. They watch what’s happening without jumping into the action. The goal is to be invisible so that they don’t change the way people behave.

Naturalistic Observation: Seeing Life Unfold

The most common way to do this is called naturalistic observation. Here, the researcher is like a photographer capturing moments without staging any shots. Everything is as it would be if the researcher wasn’t there at all. They’re not trying to control or change anything; they just want to see and record life as it happens.

A Real-World Example: Ride Alongs

For instance, if a researcher wants to understand how police officers interact with people, they might join a ride along. This means they’ll sit in the police car and observe the officers’ day-to-day activities. The key is, even if something happens, the researcher doesn’t step in; they just watch and take notes.

Why Watch Like This?

By observing things in their natural state, researchers can gather information that’s unbiased and true to real life. These observations can lead to more detailed studies later, where researchers might test out the patterns they saw during their quiet watching.

🔍 Reflect: Can you think of a situation where just watching, not participating, might help you understand what’s really going on? Why do you think that might be the case?

The Researcher as Part of the Story

Participant Observation: Inside the Action

Imagine you’re part of a theater play, but you’re also trying to write a review of it while you’re acting. That’s participant observation. The researcher isn’t just watching from the sidelines; they’re in the middle of the action, living the experience while also trying to take notes about it.

The Challenge of Being Part of the Group

Being both a participant and an observer is tough. The researcher needs to really get into the role, just like an actor, but also stay clear-headed enough to remember they’re there to study, not just to play. They need to understand the group from the inside without forgetting to watch it like a scientist.

Why Join In?

This method lets researchers feel what it’s like to be part of the group they’re studying. It can give them insights that just watching from afar can’t. They can see what it really feels like to be a police officer, for instance, which helps them understand the police culture on a deeper level.

The Tradeoffs

The downside? It’s hard to be part of something and still stay neutral. When you’re right in the thick of it, your view might get a little biased because you’re having the same experiences as the people you’re studying.

🔍 Reflect: If you were to join a club to understand what makes it special, do you think you’d see it differently than if you were just watching? Why or why not?

Gathering Views in a Group

What’s a Focus Group?

Let’s say you and a bunch of people you’ve never met before get together to talk about a new rule at school. There’s someone there to guide the conversation, but they’re not trying to teach you anything—they just want to hear what you all think. That’s a focus group. It’s like a group project where the goal is to share opinions, not to get a grade.

Why Use Focus Groups?

The cool part about focus groups is that when people bounce ideas off each other, you can get some really interesting discussions. Like, if you’re all talking about a new curfew in your city, someone might bring up a point you never thought about, and that can spark a whole new conversation.

The Moderator’s Role

The person leading the focus group has a couple of important jobs. They’ve got to make sure everyone’s voice is heard, and they’ve got to stop any one person from taking over the talk. They’re like a referee in a debate, making sure the game is fair and everyone plays by the rules.

Watching Out for Bias

One tricky thing for the leader is to not let their own opinions get in the way. They have to be super careful to keep the conversation balanced and let the group’s ideas shine.

How Do Researchers Use Focus Groups?

After the chat, the researcher will look back at everything that was said and look for patterns or common thoughts. It’s a bit like finding the main theme in a book—what’s the big thing that everyone’s talking about?

The Limits of Focus Groups

But there’s a catch. Since the group isn’t a random bunch of people, it’s hard to say if what they think is what everyone else thinks. It’s like if you only asked one team in a tournament how to make the game better—you’re missing out on what the other teams think.

The Perks of Focus Groups

Still, focus groups are super helpful because they’re faster and cheaper than asking each person one-by-one. And the conversations can feel more real and natural, which can make the findings more believable. Plus, for people who aren’t researchers, it’s often easier to understand what’s being said in a focus group than to try to make sense of a bunch of numbers from a survey.

🔍 Reflect: Have you ever been in a group where you felt more comfortable sharing your ideas because of the discussion? How did the group’s conversation influence your own thoughts?


Observational Methods Explained

This section introduced observational research, highlighting its value in studying behaviors naturally without direct questioning. It offers a window into authentic actions, especially when asking might change how people act.

Structured vs. Unstructured Observation

We compared structured observation, which counts specific behaviors, to unstructured observation, which records whatever happens in a situation, providing a richer, more exploratory understanding.

The Setting Matters

Discussing the importance of environment, we learned that most observational studies take place not in a lab, but out where life happens—like in a busy school hallway or a local park.

Different Ways to Observe

The text explored two roles of observers: participant observers who engage with their subjects, and nonparticipant observers who watch unnoticed. Each approach provides unique insights while presenting its own challenges.

Focus Groups as a Lens

Focus groups were described as moderated discussions providing quick, valuable perspectives on specific topics, though they may not always reflect broader public opinion.

Throughout the section, the critical importance of maintaining ethical standards and reducing bias in research was emphasized, complementing the exploration of observational research methods.

Modification History

File Created:  07/25/2018

Last Modified:  11/06/2023

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