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Types of Observation in Social Science Research

There are two types of observation in social science research: participant observation and non-participant observation. The purpose of both types of observation is to collect primary data from the respondents or sample.

What is observation?

In social science research, the researcher can collect data using various sources: primary or secondary and sometimes there are tertiary sources as well. Observation is one of the primary source of data collection in social science research. Observation is a purposeful, systematic and selective way of watching and listening to a phenomenon or interaction as it takes place (Kumar, 2000). Observation can be used in various situations where other methods of data collection are not appropriate or valid. The use of observation though requires that the researcher keeps in mind the ethics of observation.

The use of observation though requires that the researcher keeps in mind the ethics of observation. The researcher needs to be certain that the respondents will; not get hurt by getting observed and should keep in mind their privacy. He/she should also have knowledge about the method of recording observations and how to observe and record in a manner that no bias is introduced in the recordings.

Types of Observation

There are two types of observation: participant observation and non-participant observation. The two methods of observation differ on whether the observer is part of the situation or not both of them have their own advantages and disadvantages.

Participant observation is when the observer or researcher becomes part of the situation or interaction that he/she is observing. In this type of observation, the researcher is an active member of the situation and his/her presence might impact the situation. The researcher may or may not inform the other participants about his observation though again he/she has to keep in mind the ethics of observing individuals without informing them. For example, to study the reaction of the general public towards beggars the observer can become a beggar and in this way, he/she will be able to observe closely and originally. In some situations, though it’s not appropriate or possible to become an active member of the situation. For example, you cannot become a thief to know how people treat a thief if he/she is caught red handed. In some situations either it’s risky or ethically inappropriate to be part of the situation.


  • The observer can get the original reactions of the participants because he is also a participant of the situation especially if it is done in a natural setting.


  • The participation of the observer in the situation can bring bias in the situation especially if the other participants know about his presence.

Non-participant observation is when the observer or the researcher does not become part of the situation or interaction that he/she is observing and recording. This kind of observation usually is preferred when becoming part of the situation can impact the situation. Sometimes the observer wants to give more attention to observation and his/her participation can make it difficult for him/her to record the observations. The observer may or may not inform them that they are getting observed. In most of the occupational settings, the researcher can conduct non-participant observation. The observer can also create controlled situation to observe the respondents.


  • The observer can observe and record in-depth because he is passively recording and not the member of the situation.
  • The observer does not impact the situation by keeping himself at bay.
  • It’s not possible for the observer to become part of every situation that he/she is observing on the other hand non-participant observation is always possible.


  • Observer bias needs to be controlled to the minimum otherwise the results will not be the true representation of the situation.
  • The observer may not be able to feel the situation since he is not an active member of it. For example, the researcher can better understand the attitude of the general public towards handicaps if he is sitting in a wheelchair otherwise he won’t be able to understand peoples’ reaction.




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