Following from my previous blog on qualitative research methods, this week I am going to talk about observational methods, which involves directly recording (observing) a participants behaviour as it occurs. It has been said that observation requires a unconstrained environment to enhance the chances of getting natural behaviour form a participant or groups of participants.
Observational methods are often used to avoid the problems which alternative experimental methods experience, problems such as demand characteristics and the dehumanisation of participants. It could be argued that all psychological experiments involve observation; however there are specific study types which are used for observations. When a study is described as observational in psychology, it means that a researcher is directly watching a person’s normal behaviour.
Observations can be carried out in two different techniques. Firstly in traditional style experimental designs. An example of this could be the Bandura (1965) study of the children’s aggression levels after watching a video clip of adults behaving aggressively. The children were then observed by Bandura of their behaviour on different types of equipment, including the Bobo doll. This was all observed through a one way mirror, so the children did not know that they were being observed. Bandura’s study was considered observational, because he observed the children’s behaviour; however it was in a laboratory environment, so it wasn’t strictly 100% natural observation, as the children would not have been conducting behaviour onto said Bobo doll usually!
The second sort of observational technique is that of a field experiment, where the research is carried out in a natural setting. However there are many ethical issues surrounding such experiments, such as is it ethical to watch people when they are unaware that you are doing so? Moreover by using a field experiment you have less control over extraneous variables, and therefore the study is less replicable, and less reliable.
Observations can be used when the experimenter has no control over any of the independent variables, which is when only the natural behaviour is being observed.
The strengths of observational experiments are that, they produce very natural results. They enable researchers to get results about individuals without having the bias which self-reports have. They also give data which has been collected in genuine natural settings, assuring participants natural behaviours.
However there are a few weaknesses to this type of research technique. If a participant know they are being watched, they are liable to change their behaviour, adding demand characteristics to the research. It is a time consuming way of collecting research, if compared to other research techniques like questionnaires. The worst issues with observational research is that it is not always easy to establish cause and effect, so even know behaviours maybe observed, there is no way of explained why they occurred.
As a final point, observational research methods are best used when a researcher is looking to find participants natural behaviours. To help conquer the issues of observational studies, using lab experiments where certain variables are controlled, therefore allowing the researcher to have a certain understanding of cause and effect.