What Is Qualitative Observation? | Definition & Examples
Qualitative observation is a research method where the characteristics or qualities of a phenomenon are described without using any quantitative measurements or data. Rather, the observation is based on the observer’s subjective interpretation of what they see, hear, smell, taste, or feel.
Qualitative observations can be done using various methods, including direct observation, interviews, focus groups, or case studies. They can provide rich and detailed information about the behavior, attitudes, perceptions, and experiences of individuals or groups.
When to use qualitative observation
Qualitative observation is a type of observational study, often used in conjunction with other types of research through triangulation. It is often used in fields like social sciences, education, healthcare, marketing, and design. This type of study is especially well suited for gaining rich and detailed insights into complex and/or subjective phenomena.
A qualitative observation could be a good fit for your research if:
- You are conducting exploratory research. If the goal of your research is to gain a better understanding of a phenomenon, object, or situation, qualitative observation is a good place to start.
- When your research topic is complex, subjective, or cannot be examined numerically. Qualitative observation is often able to capture the complexity and subjectivity of human behavior, particularly for topics like emotions, attitudes, perceptions, or cultural practices. These may not be quantifiable or measurable through other methods.
- You are relying on triangulation within your research approach. Qualitative observation is a solid addition to triangulation approaches, where multiple sources of data are used to validate and verify research findings.
Examples of qualitative observation
Qualitative observation is commonly used in marketing to study consumer behavior, preferences, and attitudes towards products or services.
Qualitative observation is often also used in design fields, to better understand user needs, preferences, and behaviors. This can aid in the development of products and services that better meet user needs.
Types of qualitative observations
There are several types of qualitative observation. Here are some of the most common types to help you choose the best one for your work.
|Naturalistic observation||The researcher observes how the participants respond to their environment in “real-life” settings but does not influence their behavior in any way||Observing monkeys in a zoo enclosure|
|Participant observation||Also occurs in “real-life” settings. Here, the researcher immerses themself in the participant group over a period of time||Spending a few months in a hospital with patients suffering from a particular illness|
|Covert observation||Hinges on the fact that the participants do not know they are being observed||Observing interactions in public spaces, like bus rides or parks|
|Case study||Investigates a person or group of people over time, with the idea that close investigation can later be generalized to other people or groups||Observing a child or group of children over the course of their time in elementary school|
Advantages and disadvantages of qualitative observations
Qualitative observations are a great choice of research method for some projects, but they definitely have their share of disadvantages to consider.
Advantages of qualitative observations
- Qualitative observations allow you to generate rich and nuanced qualitative data—aiding you in understanding a phenomenon or object and providing insights into the more complex and subjective aspects of human experience.
- Qualitative observation is a flexible research method that can be adjusted based on research goals and timeline. It also has the potential to be quite non-intrusive, allowing observation of participants in their natural settings without disrupting or influencing their behavior.
- Qualitative observation is often used in combination with other research methods, such as interviews or surveys, to provide a more complete picture of the phenomenon being studied. This triangulation can help improve the reliability and validity of the research findings.
Disadvantages of qualitative observations
- Like many observational studies, qualitative observations are at high risk for many research biases, particularly on the side of the researcher in the case of observer bias. These biases can also bleed over to the participant size, in the case of the Hawthorne effect or social desirability bias.
- Qualitative observations are typically based on a small sample size, which makes them very unlikely to be representative of the larger population. This greatly limits the generalizability of the findings if used as a standalone method, and the data collection process can be long and onerous.
- Like other human subject research, qualitative observation has its share of ethical considerations to keep in mind and protect, particularly informed consent, privacy, and confidentiality.
Frequently asked questions
- How is data analyzed in qualitative observation?
Data analysis in qualitative observation often involves searching for any recurring patterns, themes, and categories in your data. This process may involve coding the data, developing conceptual frameworks or models, and conducting thematic analysis. This can help you generate strong hypotheses or theories based on your data.
- What’s the difference between quantitative and qualitative methods?
Quantitative research deals with numbers and statistics, while qualitative research deals with words and meanings.
Quantitative methods allow you to systematically measure variables and test hypotheses. Qualitative methods allow you to explore concepts and experiences in more detail.
- How do you define an observational study?
An observational study is a great choice for you if your research question is based purely on observations. If there are ethical, logistical, or practical concerns that prevent you from conducting a traditional experiment, an observational study may be a good choice. In an observational study, there is no interference or manipulation of the research subjects, as well as no control or treatment groups.
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