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Chapter 6: Observing Behavior
Quantitative and Qualitative Approaches
Observational methods can be broadly classified as primarily quantitative or
qualitative. Qualitative research focuses on people behaving in natural settings and
describing their world in their own words; quantitative research tends to focus on
specific behaviors that can be easily quantified. Qualitative researchers emphasize
collecting in depth information on a relatively few individuals or within a very
limited setting; quantitative investigations generally include larger samples. The
conclusions of qualitative research are based on interpretation drawn by the
investigator; conclusions in quantitative research are based upon statistical analysis
of data.
Naturalistic Observation
Naturalistic observation is sometimes called fieldwork or simply field observation. In
a naturalistic observation study, the researcher makes observations in a
particular natural setting over an extended period of time, using a variety of
techniques to collect information. The report includes these observations and the
researchers interpretations of the findings.
A researcher uses naturalistic observation when he or she wants to describe and
understand how people in a social or cultural setting live, work and experience the
setting. If you want to know how people persuade or influence others, for example,
you can get a job as a car salesperson or take an encyclopedia sales training course.
Description and Interpretation of Data
Naturalistic observation demands that researchers immerse themselves in the
situation. The goal is to provide a complete and accurate picture rather than to test
hypotheses formed prior to the study. To achieve this goal, the researcher must
keep detailed field notes that is, write or dictate on a regular basis everything
that has happened. Field researchers use a variety of techniques to gather
information: observing people and events, interviewing key informants to provide
inside information, talking to people about their lives, and examining documents
produced in the setting, such as newspapers, newsletters, or memos. In addition to
taking detailed field notes, researchers conducting naturalistic observation usually
use audio and videotape recordings.
The researchers first goal is to describe the settings, events, and persons observed.
The second, equally important goal is to analyze what was observed. The researcher
must interpret what occurred; essentially generating hypotheses that help explain
the data and make them understandable. The final report while sensitive to
chronological order of events is usually organized around the structure developed
by the researcher.

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A good naturalistic observation report will support the analysis by using multiple
confirmations. For example, similar events may occur several times, similar
information may be reported by two or more people, and several different events
may occur that all support the same conclusion.
The data in naturalistic observation studies are primarily qualitative in nature.
Such qualitative descriptions are often richer and closer to the phenomenon being
studied than are statistical representations. However, there is no reason that
quantitative data cannot be gathered in a naturalistic observation study. If
circumstances allow it, data can be gathered on income, family size, education
levels, and other easily quantifiable variables.
Issues in Naturalistic Observation
A nonparticipant observer is an outsider who does not become an active part of the
setting. In contrast, a participant observer assumes an active, insider role. A
potential problem with participant observation, however, is that the observer may
lose the objectivity necessary to conduct scientific investigation.
Naturalistic observation requires accurate description and objective interpretation
with no prior hypotheses.
Should the researcher remain concealed or be open about the research purposes?
Concealed observation may be preferable because the presence of the observer may
influence and alter the behavior of those being observed. Still, non concealed
observation may be preferable from an ethical point of view.
People often quickly become used to the observer and behave naturally in the
observers presence. A well known example of non concealed observation is provided
by television e.g. MTVs Real World.
The decision of whether to conceal ones purpose or presence depends on both ethical
concerns and the nature of the particular group and setting being studied. In sum,
researchers who use naturalistic observation to study behavior must carefully
determine what their role in the setting will be.
You may be wondering about informed consent in naturalistic observation;
observation in public places when anonymity is not threatened is considered exempt
Defining the Scope of the Observation
A researcher employing naturalistic observation may want to study everything
about a setting. However, this may not be possible, simply because a setting and the
questions one might ask about it are so complex. Thus, researchers often must limit
the scope of their observations to behaviors that are relevant to the central issues of
the study.
Limits of Naturalistic Observation
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