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Comprehensive Essay on Importance and Uses of Observation Method in Social Sciences

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It includes the most casual uncon­trolled experiences as well as the most exact firm records of laboratory experimentation. There are many observational techniques and each has its own uses.

Definition of Observation:

1. P.G. Gisbert:

“Observation consists in the application of our mind and its cognitive pow­ers to the phenomena which we are studying”.

2. Ian Robertson:

“Observational studies usually involve an intensive examination of a par­ticular group, event, or social process. The researcher does not attempt to influence what happens in any way but aims instead at an accurate description and analysis of what takes place.”

3. Wallace and Wallace:

“In an observational study the researcher actually witnesses social behaviour in its natural setting”.

4. In general, we can say that observation is a systematic, direct, definite and deliberate ex­amination of the spontaneous occurrences at the time of their occurrence.

Hypothesis and Observation:

The basis for selecting a particular aspect for study is guided by the nature, scope and objectives of the inquiry. Generally, the formulated hypothesis is the guiding element in the immediate observa­tion.

For example, we are interested in the problem of juvenile delinquency and have tentatively formulated a hypothesis that juvenile delinquency is caused by broken homes and careless child- rearing.

Then, to test this, we concentrate our attention on broken homes and observe it as a cause of juvenile delinquency. If our observation demands the rejection of that hypothesis, then a new hy­pothesis is found in its place.

Observation and Experiment:

Observation and experiment as representing two techniques of scientific research are being used in all the sciences. Both the techniques intend to trace the cause-and-effect relationships in the phenomena at study. But the procedures of using these techniques vary according to the material being studied.

“Observational studies are like experiments in all respects except one. In an experiment the scientist arranges for something to happen in order to observe what follows, whereas in an observa­tional study the scientist observes something which happens, or has already happened. Both rely upon systematic observation under controlled conditions in a search for verifiable sequences and relationships”. —Horton and Hunt

Like the experiment, the observational study can be conducted in the laboratory or in the field. In a laboratory observation, for example, the sociologist might bring a group of subjects together and present them with a problem in order to observe the processes by which leaders emerge and decisions are made.

The researcher may make use of instruments such as tape-recorder, camera etc., to record the interaction and to watch. In the field observation, sociologist studies something that is happening or has happened without attempting to structure the conditions of observation. Most ob­servational studies take place in the field only.

Types of Observation:

Observation may be of three broad types:

(i) Non-Controlled, Participant Observation.

(ii) Non-Controlled Non-participant Observation.

(iii) Systematic Controlled Observation.

(i) Non-Controlled Participant Observation:

This procedure or type is made use of when the observer can so disguise himself as to be accepted as a member of the group under study. The degree of participation of the observer depends largely upon the nature of the study and the practical demands of the situation. The observer must identify himself closely with the group studied, since the subject matter is quite new and requires intensive study.

The sociologist need not carry out exactly the same activities as others in order to be a partici­pant observer. He may find a role in the group which will not disturb the usual patterns of behaviour. This participant observation may vary from complete membership in the group to a part-time mem­bership in the group.

It can be taken for granted that if the members are unaware of the scientist’s purpose, their behaviour is least likely to be affected. Thus, we may be able to record the natural behaviour of the group. The observer has access to a body of information, which could not easily be obtained by merely looking on in a disinterested fashion.

Some Examples of Participant Observational Studies:

(a) William Whyte (1943) took the role of a participant observer in an Italian slum neighborhood of an American city, that is, Boston. Whyte learnt Italian language and participated in all the activities of the gang such as—gambling, drinking alcohol, bowling, etc. The gang knew Whyte as someone who was writing a book. Sociologists had previously presumed that such a slum community would not be highly organised. Whyte showed that it was, although not in tune with the middle-class values.

(b) Erving Goffman (1961), an American social psychologist spent many months as an ob­server in mental hospital. His description gives us an idea as to how the organisation of an asylum systematically depersonalises the patients and may even aggravate their problems.

(c) Leo Festinger (1966) and his associates wanted to study a very exclusive cult whose mem­bers believed that the end of the world was to come on a certain specified day. Festinger with his associates took part in its meetings by pretending to be believers.

Challenges and Limitations of Participant Observation:

Participant observation has its own challenges and limitations.

The Challenges:

Participant observation brings on the sociologist heavy obligations. (1) The identities of the informants must be protected (2) Systematic notes must be kept each day and memory must be maintained afresh (3) The observer must be careful not to influence the behaviour that he or she is observing (4) Gaining access to the group and winning the confidence of its members is highly chal­lenging (5) This method relies heavily on the skills and subjective interpretations of the observer. Hence the observer must have sufficient competence and experience.

Limitations and Disadvantages:

1. The observing researcher has no control over what happens and may have difficulty in putting the observations into systematic form in order to draw conclusions.

2. The number of subjects or people the researcher can observe is small. There are often service problems in gaining entry into a natural setting. Many potential subjects, for example, the very wealthy and the very deviant, do not want to be subjects for the benefit of social science research.

3. The participant observer may become so emotionally involved as to lose objectivity. Instead of keeping himself as a neutral observer he may become a dedicated partisan. Or the participant observer may over generalise—that is, assume that what is found in the group studied is also true of all other groups. For example, in the first example cited previously, William Whyte in his study of the

Italian slum neighborhood had eventually become as absorbed with his life as a gang member that he stopped his observation as an impassionate researcher. But Whyte was aware of what was hap­pening in him. He began as amongst a non-observing participator

4. In participant observation one may have to sacrifice scientific precision to some extent. The observer may misinterpret events, may unwillingly ignore some important things that are very much relevant. He may focus on unimportant things and may become emotionally involved with the lives of the subjects.

5. Another disadvantage is that the findings of single observational study cannot be generalised to all apparently similar cases. The phenomenon that has been studied may have been an excep­tional one. Hence its findings cannot be uncritically applied to parallel situations.

6. To become a participant observer one must at least share sufficient cultural background with the actors involved in the phenomenon under study. Only then he is able to construe their behaviour meaningfully. It would be pointless, for example, for him to attempt to study the behaviour of some quite unknown people merely by observation.

7. As it is in the case of the interviewer, the observer’s role is conditioned by his age, sex and possibly by his caste, ethnic or racial status. A man will find much of the behaviour of women beyond his observation and vice versa. Similarly, a young researcher may find it virtually impossible to associate with the old in order to see what they do and what they talk about and vice versa.

8. As Horton and Hunt have pointed out this method of observation gives rise to some ethical questions also. “It is ethical to pretend to be a loyal member of a group in order to study it? Is such a deception justifiable?” Is he sure, that his role as an observer does not harm the interest of the members of the group under study? The best answer though it is difficult to practice is that a repu­table scientist will be careful not to injure the people being studied.

9. The eyewitness account of the participant observer has definitely its own limitations. Marty of the happenings and events are beyond its purview. How do people behave after a disaster, say, an earthquake, or a bomb explosion? What happens at a religious revival, riot, a famine? Rarely do we find a visiting sociologist with a pen in hand really to record the event.

The Relative Merits of Participant Observation:

Participant Observation has certain advantages or merits also. Some of them may be pointed out here.

(i) Since the observer is not a stranger but a known person, it is possible to observe the natural behaviour of the group;

(ii) This type facilitates gathering quantitatively more and qualitatively better information about the people or events;

(iii) It is also possible to get better insights into the inner dynamics of the phenomena since the observer happens to be an insider;

(iv) Even the so called secret behaviour (relating to sex, crime, business tactics, etc.,) can be observed through this method;

(v) The dependability of the data collected through this method is believed to be greater be­cause it is gathered first-hand.

(ii) Non-Controlled Non-Participant Observation:

The non-participant observation is difficult to conduct. We have no standard set of relationship or role patterns for the non-member who is always present but never participating. Both the group and the outsider are likely to feel uncomfortable. In many research situations, an outsider cannot become a genuine participant. The sociologist, for example, cannot become a criminal in order to study a criminal gang. Neither can he become a true member of the criminal gang.

On the other hand, it is possible for the observer to take part in many activities of the group so as to avoid the awkwardness of complete non-participation. This has been a classic pattern in social research.

It was used by Replay a century ago in his study of European working families. In such studies, the investigators have lived as members of the family as participants in community activities taking part in games and dances or even in study groups. They nevertheless made clear that their purpose was to gather facts.

Non-participant observation is usually “quasi-participant” observation. What is necessary here is a good plan for entering the group. If the observer is good at observation, then, he can establish good contact with the group members. Here, the observer is a stranger and hence is less involved emotionally with the social situation.

True members of the group may thus feel relatively free to talk over even delicate matters which they would not discuss with their own inmates. The observer is also a good listener and is like a pupil eager to learn.

Merits and Demerits of Non-Participant Observation Merits:

(i) This type contributes to a higher degree of objectivity on the part of the observer. There is no need for him to become emotionally involved in the event.

Since the observer observes the events with an “open mind” he is able to collect more information.

The people who are being observed can also be more free with the observer for he is an outsider.


(i) Observation in this category is mostly limited to formal occasions and Organisations. It fails to provide information regarding many aspects of our social life.

(ii) Since the observer is an outsider he may fail to understand the behaviour of the observed in its entirety. The observer may not get insights into different aspects of behaviour.

Systematic Controlled Observation:

Here the observer tries to systematise the process of observation and does not try to limit the activities of the observed individuals. This is most useful in exploratory studies. The observer makes use of the carefully drawn schedules and questionnaires and better techniques of observation.

He tries to check his own biases, his selective perception, and the vagueness of his senses. He makes use of standardised instruments like camera, tape—records, maps, sociometric scales etc. to record his observation with more precision.

The sociologist in this controlled observation is often in the position of a zoologist or a psy­chologist or an astronomer attempting to study the lives of animals or objects in their natural habitat.

Hence it is difficult to control the object under investigation. Instead of that the observer must at least put controls on himself. By this he increases precision and at the same time he protects his work from later attacks.

Controlled observation may also be directed towards situations which are natural, but in which the subjects are aware that they are being observed. Systematic observation limits the bias of the individual observer partly by making the subjects feel the situation as natural and partly by the application of controls on the observer in the form of mechanical devices like films, photographs, recordings etc. Here, the controls are applied to both the observer and the observed.

Merits and Limitations of Observation:

Merits of Observation:

(i) Observation, whether of participant or non-participant type, has, it is to be acknowledged, its own advantages. As Robertson has pointed out “Observational studies have the advantage that they come to grips with real-life situations and so offer insights that years of experimenting and surveying might overlook”.

(ii) “The great advantage of the observational study is that the research is accomplished by directly observing subject’s behaviour, as opposed to a survey or an analysis of existing sources in which the researcher must rely of others’ observations and reports. Observational techniques are also greatly superior to either the survey or the document study in providing information about non—verbal behaviour.”

(iii) Observational techniques allow the researcher “to observe the subject in a natural setting, and they provide for the study of the subject over a time rather than at one point, as a survey usually does”.

(iv) Though there is the danger of an observer getting himself absorbed with the group under study, it has a peculiar strength of its own. As Peter Worsley points out, “the peculiar strength of participant observation demands not complete detachment, but the involvement of the research worker in the lives of the people he is studying…. This gives him a deeper insight into the behaviour of the people he is studying”.

Limitations of Observation:

(i) One of the limitations of observation is that the data collected through observation cannot always be quantified.

(ii) Observation is essentially the study of occurrences at the time they occur. Hence it is very much limited by the duration of the event. Events do not wait for the conveniences of the observer.

(iii) Observation cannot always be effectively used to study the private and secret behaviour of the individuals. For example, observing the criminal behaviour of a so called “decent person”, is not an easy task.

(iv) There is no guarantee that the observer studies the phenomenon in an impartial manner and without prejudice. Hence, there is scope for the danger of bias, especially hidden bias.


Observation is one of the effective methods of collecting reliable information about the social behaviour of man though it has its own limitations. In this method the role of the observer is very significant. The effectiveness of the method depends to a great extent on the efficiency of the ob­server.

The observer is a mediator between the actual situation and the data. The researcher must keep in mind the role of the observer while making observations. All scieritific study depends ultimately upon the observer, especially, in our field.

The observer, however, is always a variable to be taken into account. In case of sociology, much information must be gathered before a genuine experiment can be designed and both participant and non-participant observation types are used for this purpose. We cannot do away with the influence of the observer, but we can limit it to a great extent.