Observation Methods

  • Malgorzata Ciesielska
  • Katarzyna W. Boström
  • Magnus Öhlander


Observation may be seen as the very foundation of everyday social interaction: as people participate in social life, they are diligent observers and commentators of others’ behavior. Observation is also one of the most important research methods in social sciences and at the same time one of the most complex. It may be the main method in the project or one of several complementary qualitative methods. As a scientific method it is has to be carried out systematically, with a focus on specific research questions. Therefore, we start with practical guide on clarifying research objectives, accessing the research field, selecting subjects, observer’s roles, and tips on documenting the data collected. The observation comprises several techniques and approaches that can be combined in a variety of ways. Observation can be either participant or not, direct or indirect. Further in this chapter, the main characteristics of three types of observations are outlined (the fourth type—direct non-participant—is discussed in the chapter on shadowing). While participant observation follows the ideal of a long-time immersion in a specific culture as a marginal member, researcher conducting non-participant observation takes position of an outsider and tries to distance him/herself from the taken-for-granted categorizations and evaluations. In the case of indirect observation, the researcher relies on observations of others (e.g. other researchers), various types of documentation, or self-observation. The chapter discusses the differences between those types of observation, shows inspirational examples from previous studies, and summarizes the method.


Participant observation Non-participant observation Direct observation Indirect observation Observer’s role 


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Malgorzata Ciesielska
    • 1
  • Katarzyna W. Boström
    • 2
  • Magnus Öhlander
    • 3
  1. 1.Teesside University Business SchoolTeesside UniversityMiddlesbroughUK
  2. 2.Umeå UniversityUmeaSweden
  3. 3.Stockholm UniversityStockholmSweden

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