Nicole Kras, Ph.D.


Conducting observations is an essential component of ethnographic research. It provides the researcher the opportunity to observe and learn from his or her surroundings and gain insights that may not be possible from relying on others to transmit the information. While conducting an observation, the researcher will often find that patterns begin to emerge, questions arise and become more specific, and hypotheses begin to form and guide the researcher into formulating results based on the observations made (Griffiths, et.al, 2012).

When conducting an observation, it is important to be aware that people often change their behavior when they know they are being watched as part of a study. This is often referred to as the Hawthorne effect. This term was coined after a series of experiments conducted by Elton Mayo and his colleagues from 1929-1932 at plant called Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works near Chicago (Spielman, et.al., 2019). The researchers in the study were initially researching the effects of the physical work environment such as the level of lighting in the plant, but their research ended up shedding light on psychological effects in the workplace. They discovered that the employees work performance improved when they were being observed by the supervisors and researchers. The Hawthorne effect is unavoidable in some instances because subjects may know they are being observed. As we learned from the Hawthorne studies, the knowledge of being observed can lead to altered behaviors.




Hawthorne Studies

Learn more about the Hawthorne Studies here  Hawthorne Electric Plant Studies


Results from observations are often qualitative and rely on the researcher’s perspective. While conducting observations, it is important for the researcher to stay as objective as possible and refrain from observer bias. Observer bias is when researchersunconsciously skew their observations to fit their research goals or expectations” (Spielman, et.al., 2019, p.45).


Types of Observations

There are different types of observations. Some types of unobtrusive observations such as informal observations, are common in everyday life, while other types of observations, such as participant-observation, are more systematic and part of the research process. Observations, like other forms of data collection, have strengths and limitations.


Unobtrusive Observation

Informal observation occurs when observations are made without any systematic process for observing or assessing accuracy of what we observed (Blackstone, 2012). People frequently partake in this type of observation in their daily lives. This type of research is what is frequently referred to as people watching. Some examples are observing people who are walking around the mall while waiting for a friend, sitting on a crowded subway and observing the people who are on the train, or observing people engaging in holiday activities in a park. Since informal observations are done without any systematic process, the findings are not always accurate.


The term selective observation is used to describe when an individual sees only those patterns that he or she wants to see or when people assume that only the patterns they have experienced directly exist (Blackstone, 2012). An example of selective observation would be a person who visits New York City for the first time and gets into a minor car accident that wasn’t her fault. This person now believes that all New York City drivers are “bad drivers.” Her claim is inaccurate and based solely on her own experiences.

Naturalistic observation is a research method that involves observing people or animals in their natural environments. When conducting a naturalistic observation, it is important for researchers to be as discreet as possible. People will often behave differently if they know they are being observed and researchers want to collect the most accurate information possible. An example of naturalistic observation would be a researcher who attends professional hockey games to make observations and collect data on the behaviors of participants watching the game. This would provide the researcher the ability to make first-hand observations and not have to rely on others to convey the information.

Strengths. A strength of naturalistic observations is the validity of the information collected. Validity means that the data the researcher is collecting is a true representation of the information he or she is measuring. Ideally participants in a naturalistic observation will not know they are being observed, so it is presumed that they are displaying authentic behaviors. Additionally, while conducting naturalistic observations the researcher can gain insights that may not be possible from relying on others to convey the information.

Limitations. There are several limitations of naturalistic observation. One limitation of this type of observation is that the environment and the individuals being observed cannot be controlled (Spielman, et.al., 2019). For example, a researcher wants to observe the behaviors of children on a playground. There are several external factors that the researcher cannot control such as the temperature or the number of kids on the playground that day. There could also be unique circumstances that happen during the observation, such as a swarm of bees that fly through the playground or a rainstorm that starts unexpectedly. Uncontrollable events like these can impact the data being collected by the researcher.

While naturalistic observation is an effective method to collect data to describe what is going on in a particular environment, a limitation of this method is that it does not explain or get to the cause of why this behavior is happening. Additionally, because observation studies do not involve random samples of the population, their results often cannot readily be generalized to the larger population. Participant Observation

When conducting ethnographic researcher, researchers may partake in what is called participant observation. Participant observation is when “researchers join people and participate in a group’s routine activities for the purpose of observing them within that context” (Griffiths, et.al, 2012, p.3). An example of this may be a researcher working as a cashier to study and gain insight into the working environment of a large retail chain. Often times researchers engaging in this type of observation do not disclose their true identities, so not to compromise their research. This can be challenging for a few reasons. One is reason is that it may take the researcher time to gain access to a certain organization or population. Another reason is that it may also take time for the researcher to adjust to the new environment. During this type of observation, is important for researchers to do their best not to disrupt the environment of the people or places they are studying (Griffiths, et.al, 2012).

Strengths. A strength of this type of research is that being a participant-observer provides the opportunity to be fully immersed in the environment and gain a first-hand perspective about what life is like for the people they are studying. The researcher can gain information that may not have been able to be collected through other methods and only though this first-hand perspective.

Limitations. A limitation to this approach is that a participant who is actively involved with the environment he or she is studying, may miss something by not sitting back and observing the environment (Griffiths, et.al, 2012). Another limitation is that there is the potential that the researcher and the people they are studying find themselves in situations that they feel uncomfortable in for various reasons. You will learn more about participant-observations in the next chapter.

Informal Observation Observations are made without any systematic process for observing or assessing accuracy of what we observed
Selective Observation When an individual sees only those patterns that want to see or when we assume that only the patterns we have experienced directly exist
Naturalistic Observation A research method that involves observing people or animals in their natural environments


When researchers join people and participate in a group’s routine activities for the purpose of observing them within that context



Observation in Action

Ethnographies of Work

At Guttman Community College, students in a course called Ethnographies of Work, have opportunities to become researchers and conduct their own naturalistic observations. For example, students are asked as part of their semester-long career exploration research project to visit a workplace of interest and observe the work environment of a career of interest to them. Through this observation students begin to learn about the culture of their workplace and use observation data they collected to help them answer their research questions about the world of work.

Another example is that Guttman students in the Ethnographies of Work course have the opportunity to practice their research skills while conducting observations throughout New York City. Students visit places such as Grand Central Station, Times Square, and Bryant Park to conduct observations and then use their findings to connect to course readings and complete reflective writing assignments.

What Should I Observe?

When you are conducting an observation, it can often be difficult to know exactly what you should be observing and what observations you should be recording. This often depends on the research question you are investigating or the assignment you are completing, but below is a template that students use in my Ethnographies of Work course to help guide them in taking their fieldnotes when they are conducting their observations. Please refer to the chapter on data collection for more information on this process.



Chapter Key Points

  • Observations are essential to ethnographic research.
  • Observations allow the researcher to learn from his or her surroundings and gain insights that may not be possible from relying on others to transmit the information.
  • There are different types of observations that ethnographic researchers can conduct such as naturalistic observations or participant-observations.
  • As with all research methods, there are strengths and limitations that the researcher needs to consider while using this method to collect data.



  1. Why are observations essential to ethnographic research?
  2. Identify the strengths and limitations of conducting observations.
  3. Compare and contrast participant observation and naturalistic observation.
  4. What challenges do you anticipate while conducting your own observations? How can you try in minimize them?
  5. What can you do as an ethnographer to reduce observer bias?


Key Terms

  • Hawthorne effect
  • Observer bias
  • Validity
  • Participant Observation



Blackstone, A. (2012). Principles of sociological inquiry – Qualitative and quantitative methods. Retrieved from https://resources.saylor.org/wwwresources/archived/site/textbooks/Principles%20of%20Sociological%20Inquiry.pdf

Griffiths, H., Keirns, N., Strayer, E., Cody-Rydzewski, S., Scaramuzzo, G., Sadler, T., Vyain, S.,  Bry, J., and Jones, FF. Introduction to Sociology 2e. Retrieved from https://www.oercommons.org/courseware/module/11760/overview

Spielman, R., Dumper, K., Jenkins, W., Lacombe, A., Lovett, M., and Perlmutter, M. (2019). Psychology. Retrieved from https://cnx.org/contents/Sr8Ev5Og@10.16:F_mjYFfh@24/Preface