Graziano and Raulin (8th ed)Graziano & Raulin
Research Methods (8th edition)


Making Observations

The dependent variable in research must be observed (measured, recorded), and specific procedures must be designed to make those observations. When we do that, we are operationalizing our dependent variables. The term, operational definition, refers to a variable that has been defined in terms of how it is to be measured. Once we operationally define the variable, then our observations are carried out according to that definition. For example, in an experimental study, we might define children's aggression as the number of times the child presses a button that causes one punching doll to hit another. Then, our observational procedure is fairly well determined--i.e., for each child we record (observe) the number of button presses on the apparatus.

In naturalistic and case study research, as discussed in Chapter 6, we have less control over variables, and this puts some limitations on the observational procedures. The chapter discusses unobtrusive and participant observational methods.

Unobtrusive Observation

Unobtrusive observations are used to reduce the participant's reactivity to the observations. We should keep in mind that reducing reactivity by using unobtrusive observation poses particular ethical issues of invasion of privacy and lacking prior informed consent (i.e., taking measurements on people who do not know they are being observed). These threats to the participants' rights must be dealt with. (See the section on Research Ethics in Chapter 3).

Participant Observation

Participant observation refers to methods where the researcher is part of the situation being studied. The overt activity of the researcher can range from that of an unobtrusive observer in the situation, to an active participant. An anthropologist who lives with a human group while studying them, is an obvious example of participant observation. In this context, participant refers to the researcher and not to the people being studied. These participant observation methods are used more in case study research, and they actually increase the possibility of subject reactivity.

Examples and Exercises

To help illustrate these concepts, we have included a number of examples. We have also includes some exercises to give you hands-on practice with developing your own observational procedures.