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The power of observation

Watching people in their own environment opens up opportunities to collect rich data.
Observer watching a conversation
© Shutterstock

Watching people in their own environment opens up opportunities to collect rich data.

Using observational methods requires you to write up detailed field notes, to record what you’ve witnessed and why this is meaningful. This becomes your raw data. Emmerson et al. (1995, p. 146) suggests trying to answer the following sets of questions when creating field notes:

  1. What are people doing or trying to accomplish?
  2. How exactly are they doing this?
  3. How do people characterise and understand what’s going on?
  4. What assumptions are being made?
  5. What do I see going on here? What have I learnt from these notes and why did I include them?

Try the following exercise to sharpen your observation skills, adapted from Silverman (2006, p. 107).

  • Choose a public setting you’re familiar with and take some time to really look at what’s occurring.
  • First, observe the physical space of the area. What activities does the location encourage or discourage? Note how people are using the space for activities that are not specifically intended.
  • Do people organise themselves differently if they’re by themselves, in a pair or in a crowd?
  • Next, notice what personal space people generally keep between themselves here.
  • How do people communicate or avoid communicating with one another? You will need to tune into the non-verbal cues here, such as body language, facial expression and levels of eye contact.
  • How do people use the space to define themselves? For example, imagine a group of people waiting outside. Some are a restaurant crowd waiting to be admitted and others are passengers waiting at the bus stop. How do they differentiate themselves?

Observing people can provide different insights to help understand particular phenomenon. Your research will benefit from developing eyes that see beyond the obvious, to notice the intriguing nuances that lie beneath.

What do you see?

Study the stereogram image below, by first placing your face close to the screen. Try to ‘look through’ the image and pretend it doesn’t exist. Slowly begin to move away from the screen and you may eventually see a hidden 3D image.

Sterogram of a cat trying to catch some fish — © Shutterstock

Did you see a solitary cat holding its paw up to a fishtank? Remember, we all have the potential to see the same thing in different ways. Apart from using observation as a specific data collection technique, well developed observation skills will serve you well in all aspects of qualitative research.

For example:

  • watching and responding to your participant’s body language during an interview could make all the difference to what you say next and the quality of information you receive in return
  • noticing and acting on patterns emerging in the early stages of your data collection could change the direction of your research focus
  • tuning in to subtle power plays arising during a group interview could lead to interesting insights and an important shift in the questions you might be asking.

Your task

Select the comments link below and tell us how you would rate your observation skills?

  • Are you the kind of person who notices the detail or the bigger picture?
  • In your response, share if observation would be a suitable method to collect data for your research question. Why or why not?


Emerson, R., Fretz, R. & Shaw, L. (1995) Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Silverman, D. (2006). Interpreting Qualitative Data (3rd ed.). London: Sage Publications

© Deakin University and Griffith University
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Why Experience Matters: Qualitative Research

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