Naturalistic Observation | Definition, Guide, & Examples
Naturalistic observation is a qualitative research method where you record the behaviors of your research subjects in real world settings. You avoid interfering with or influencing any variables in a naturalistic observation.
You can think of naturalistic observation as “people watching” with a purpose.
What is naturalistic observation?
In naturalistic observations, you study your research subjects in their own environments to explore their behaviors without any outside influence or control. It’s a research method used in field studies.
Traditionally, naturalistic observation studies have been used by animal researchers, psychologists, ethnographers, and anthropologists. Naturalistic observations are helpful as a hypothesis-generating approach, because you gather rich information that can inspire further research.
Naturalistic observation is especially valuable for studying behaviors and actions that may not be replicable in controlled lab settings.
|Child development||You track language development in a child’s natural environment, their own home, with an audio recording device.|
|Consumer research||You study how grocery shoppers navigate a store and shop differently after a layout change.|
|Sports psychology||You triangulate reports of drug use among athletes with in-person observations.|
Types of naturalistic observation methods
Naturalistic observations can be:
- Covert or overt: You either hide or reveal your identity as an observer to the participants you observe.
- Participant or non-participant: You participate in the activity or behavior yourself, or you observe from the sidelines.
There are four main ways of using naturalistic observations.
|Participant observation||Non-participant observation|
|Covert observation||Subjects are unaware that you’re observing them, because telling them may affect their behaviors.
You also immerse yourself in the activity you’re researching yourself.
|You don’t inform or show participants you’re observing them.
You observe participants from a distance without being involved.
|Example: You study organizational practices in small startups by joining one as an employee.
You don’t reveal that you’re a researcher, and you take notes on behavioral data in secret.
|Example: You take video recordings of classroom activities to study as an observer.
Participants are unaware they’re being observed because the cameras are placed discreetly.
|Overt observation||You inform or make it clear to participants that you are observing them.
You also participate in the activity you’re researching yourself.
|Participants are aware you’re observing them.
You observe participants from a distance without being involved.
|Example: You join a startup as an intern and perform research there for your thesis.
You participate in the organization while studying their organizational practices with everyone’s knowledge.
|Example: You join a classroom and study student behaviors without taking part in the activities yourself.
It’s clear to your participants that you’re observing them.
Importantly, all of these take place in naturalistic settings rather than experimental laboratory settings. While you may actively participate in some types of observations, you refrain from influencing others or interfering with the activities you are observing too much.
How to collect data
You can use a variety of data collection methods for naturalistic observations.
Nowadays, it’s common to collect observations through audio and video recordings so you can revisit them at a later stage or share them with other trained observers. It’s best to place these recording devices discreetly so your participants aren’t distracted by them. This can lead to a Hawthorne effect, where participants change their behavior once aware they’re being recorded.
However, make sure you receive informed consent (in a written format) from each participant prior to recording them.
You can take notes while conducting naturalistic observations. Note down anything that seems relevant or important to you based on your research topic and interests in an unstructured way.
If you’re studying specific behaviors or events, it’s often helpful to make frequency counts of the number of times these occur during a certain time period. You can use a tally count to easily note down each instance that you observe in the moment.
There’s a lot of information you can collect when you conduct research in natural, uncontrolled environments. To simplify your data collection, you’ll often use data sampling.
Data sampling allows you to narrow down the focus of your data recording to specific times or events.
You record observations only at specific times. These time intervals can be randomly selected (e.g., at 8:03, 10:34, 12:51) or systematic (e.g., every 2 hours). You record whether your behaviors of interest occur during these time periods.
You record observations only when specific events occur. You may use a tally count to note the frequency of the event or take notes each time you see the event occurring.
Advantages of naturalistic observation
Naturalistic observation is a valuable tool because of its flexibility, external validity, and suitability for research topics that can’t be studied in a lab.
Because naturalistic observation is a non-experimental method, you’re not bound to strict procedures. You can avoid using rigid protocols and also change your methods midway if you need to.
Naturalistic observations are particularly high in ecological validity, because you use real life environments instead of lab settings. People don’t always act in the same ways in and outside the lab. Your participants behave in more authentic ways when they are unaware they’re being observed, mitigating the risk of a Hawthorne effect.
Naturalistic observations help you study topics that you can’t in the lab for ethical reasons. You can also use technology to record conversations, behaviors, or other noise, provided you have consent or it’s otherwise ethically permissible.
Disadvantages of naturalistic observation
The downsides of naturalistic observation include its lack of scientific control, ethical considerations, and potential for bias from observers and subjects.
Lack of control
Since you perform research in natural environments, you can’t control the setting or any variables. Without this control, you won’t be able to draw conclusions about causal relationships. You also may not be able to replicate your findings in other contexts, with other people, or at other times.
Most people don’t want to be observed as they’re going about their day without their explicit consent or awareness. It’s important to always respect privacy and try to be unobtrusive. It’s also best to use naturalistic observations only in public situations where people expect they won’t be alone.
Because you indirectly collect data, there’s always a risk of observer bias in naturalistic observations. Your perceptions and interpretations of behavior may be influenced by your own experiences, and inaccurately represent the truth. This type of bias is particularly likely to occur in participant observation methods.
When you observe subjects in their natural environment, they may sometimes be aware they’re being observed. As a result, they may change their behaviors to act in more socially desirable ways to confirm your expectations, or the perception of high or low expectations may cause a Pygmalion effect.
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Frequently asked questions about naturalistic observation
- What is the definition of a naturalistic observation?
- What are the pros and cons of naturalistic observation?
- How can I minimize observer bias in my research?
You can use several tactics to minimize observer bias.
- Use masking (blinding) to hide the purpose of your study from all observers.
- Triangulate your data with different data collection methods or sources.
- Use multiple observers and ensure interrater reliability.
- Train your observers to make sure data is consistently recorded between them.
- Standardize your observation procedures to make sure they are structured and clear.
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