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Advantages and Disadvantages of Conducting Observational Research

The following table provides an evaluation of observation as a research method.

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A key advantage of conducting observations is that you can observe what people actually do or say, rather than what they say they do. People are not always willing to write their true views on a questionnaire or tell a stranger what they really think at interview. Observations can be made in real life situations, allowing the researcher access to the context and meaning surrounding what people say and do. There are numerous situations in the area of criminology, and related disciplines, where approaching people for interview or questionnaire completion is unlikely to yield a positive response, but where observations could yield valuable insights on an issue.

On the other hand, there are a number of very important problems associated with observational research. An important one relates to the role of the observer and what effect he or she has on the people and situations observed. This is difficult to gauge. There is also the additional problem of being able to write an account, as a researcher, when one is immersed in a situation or culture. This latter situation can mean that the research is dismissed as too subjective. Observation can be very time consuming. Some well known observational pieces of research took some years of observation and immersion in a situation or culture. However, it is more common in modern research to reduce the observation time substantially. Observation time may be further reduced in experimental conditions (laboratory or simulation) in other words, controlled settings. An important potential disadvantage, in conducting observational research, is the ethical dilemmas inherent in observing real life situations for research purposes.

Reading Observational and Ethnographic Research

Wakefield, A. (2008). Private policing: a view from the mall . Public Administration, 86(3), pp. 659-678.

Williams, A. and Thompson, B. (2004). 'Vigilance Or Vigilantes: The Paulsgrove Riots and Policing Paedophiles in the Community. Part 1: The Long Slow Fuse'. The Police Journal, 77(2), 99-119.

Williams, A. and Thompson, B. (2004). 'Vigilance Or Vigilantes: The Paulsgrove Riots and Policing Paedophiles in the Community. Part 2: The Lessons of Paulsgrove'. The Police Journal, 77(3),193-205.

These three articles report on ethnographic research. Identify the place of observations within the methods used in these studies. Look at how the observations have been analysed and presented within each article.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of researching each topic in this way?