Concept and Characteristics of Observation in Research

Concept and Characteristics of the Note

An inherent part of human nature, observation is part of our psychology in relation to everyday life. It could be said that everyone continuously practices and observes, perceiving what is going on around them. Observation supports varying degrees of systematization, ranging from occasional and incidental observation (not due to any criteria or strategy) to active observation (due to technical criteria and methodological investigation). As a research method, observation allows systematic and careful consideration of how social life develops, without modification, as it happens. Each professional chooses a focus of observation, observes different environments or situations, uses different registers, and performs data analysis based on the objectives of the intervention. There are different types of observation in terms of the observer’s intervention in the field:

Types of Observation


When the observer observes themselves independent of the observation and recording procedure used.

Systematic Observation

A systematic and deliberate observation procedure where behavior is recorded, encoded, and analyzed.

Participant Observation

When observers are part of the field of observation, collecting data while participating with the subjects in the context of their natural life.

Self-Observation Techniques

All observations are relative to the view taken by the observer and the observed size, leading the observer to be part of the observed. Self-observation can also be considered as a set of techniques to obtain and record information.

Self-Registration and Self-Report

Can be written as a form of self-observation from which to obtain a general self-report. The user is provided with a support device or instrument that allows them to register their concerns and conduct. Normally, this occurs in natural situations of spontaneous behavior, but in any case, the subject notes their behavior, avoiding distortion of the natural process. This is a useful technique for getting some changes in some behaviors that are considered erroneous, as it clearly specifies behaviors and self-observations have to select a suitable registration system.


Characterized by its intimate and non-transferable nature, the diary is one of the most reliable methods as it contains the most relevant and meaningful episodes for the subject. It does so even though it has no structure and no formal advantage. A diary is a registration elaborated daily and has great fidelity when transcribing the facts.


Letters are an expression of informal relationships maintained between different subjects that provide different information to other biographical materials. To avoid a partial view, it is necessary to know the information given from both sides.


An autobiography is a story the author makes about themselves. It can be defined as a retrospective narrative that a real person makes of their own life, and in particular, on the history of their experiences and personality. They can be very useful documentary sources, although not always with scientific value, as the author narrates only the most significant and prominent facts of their life from their own perspective.

Tales of Life and Life Histories

This information collection technique was introduced by anthropology and has been consolidated as a material of great value in the social sciences. They are biographical narratives of a subject, referring to their lives and recounted just as they have lived them. Life stories are studies concerning one person that include not only their life but also interviews with people from their social environment and any other document that enables a more objective and exhaustive biographical reconstruction. It should not be forgotten that the subject relates these two documents according to their perspectives, and, of course, subjectively.

Systematic Observation

Scientific observation is a systematic, deliberate, and targeted process by which a researcher obtains information on a situation or problem. It is a fundamental technique in qualitative research and provides a representation of reality involved in the perception and interpretation of the observer. It has the advantage that the observer, not having to participate actively in the situation, can focus only on the phenomenon that has to be observed. Another important point is that the observer cannot cause, by their own conduct, the appearance of certain sequences of behavior that are of interest, but must wait for these to be presented or not in the natural course of action.

Methodological Criteria

Types of Sampling

The most common sampling types in systematic observation are temporal. These are:

  • Continuous Temporal Sampling: The observer refers to the event throughout its course. Used when events are of short duration.
  • Sampling Point: Every so often (e.g., every 30 or 60 minutes) reflects what is happening. Used in long-term events.
  • Sampling Interval: Behaviors are observed that occur during a short period of time (e.g., 10 or 20 minutes).
  • Event Sampling: The observer records a behavior according to the presence of another.

Footnote and Systems Registration

The annotation refers to the way in which the behaviors being observed will be registered. The record is a representation of reality by the observer through the use of certain codes, which is embodied in a hardware that ensures its prevalence.

Classification According to the Structuring of Information

Closed Systems

They contain a finite number of predetermined categories, identified a priori and mutually exclusive.

Open Systems

Although they may have predetermined categories, these are not mutually exclusive and may be modified during the observation.

Classification by Hardware

Categorical Systems

These are complete and closed systems that contain a finite number of categories of observation, which occur within an interval of time. They can occur in various forms:

  • Checklists: A system of categories is determined in which there is only the presence or absence of pre-specified behaviors.
  • Rating Scales: Similar to checklists, but a little more specific, indicating the degree to which the observed behavior is present.

Descriptive Systems

These are open systems that enable the quantity and degree of structure. Predetermined categories can be used.

Narrative Systems

These are open systems that do not differ substantially from descriptive methods, only they do not use predetermined categories and have a lower degree of structure.

Technological Systems

These are live recordings of behaviors, events, processes, and situations selected by the researcher that occur in a given period of time.

Participant Observation

Participant observation is based on the description of behaviors of individuals and groups through experience. The observer experiences the situation as a person directly involved and integrated into the reality being analyzed.

Planning Participant Observation

In practice, there is often a clear temporal sequence that differentiates the stages of planning and obtaining information. These are:

Problem Definition

What do you investigate? In the case of participant observation, the formulation of the problem is the result of a flexible process, which is to identify, clarify, negotiate, and refine as precisely as possible what will be the area under study.

Mode of Observation

What do you see? To select the most appropriate modality, criteria such as the nature and characteristics of the problem, as well as the accessibility and characteristics of the possible scenarios or social situations that must be observed, should be taken into account.


Where do you see? This is the situation or social context where the observation takes place.

Focus and Scope

What do you see? The experienced observer, after the first phase of descriptive observation, is sensitive to different areas of focus that allow them to select the activities and events that are significant for disclosure.


When do you observe? As the observer explores and reformulates problems and emerging issues for future research, they start a spiral process that leads them to observe, analyze, refocus, and look again.

Recording Techniques

How to register? Narrative systems are the most commonly used. The observer becomes the direct protagonist.

Registration Information

Narrative systems are widely used in participant observation because, unlike the techniques used in systematic observation, the story is not part of predetermined categories, but from what is understood about why things happen.


Fieldnotes are a narrative-descriptive way of telling observations, reflections, and reactions to what the researcher perceives. Notes are taken during the day to refresh the memory for longer than with extensive notes. They are more useful for: diagnosing groups, case studies, and specific studies in the social field. The observer must take into account: the type of material used to write, the time and place where the notes are taken, the symbols drawn by the observer, and their own method of shorthand, as well as how to file the field notes. It is interesting that the field notes include the date, the place of observation, the people present, etc. Field notes should be specific and detailed, and should include aspects such as what the people involved say, the narratives of the experiences, perceptions, and feelings.

  • Easy to prepare
  • Allow information about the continuity of the situation
  • First-hand information
  • Useful for case studies
  • Help to evoke and reconstruct the situation
  • Cannot record conversations
  • Cannot be applied to a whole group
  • Can be subjective
  • Time-consuming

Anecdotal Record

This is a form of log that is performed in a real situation previously defined, with specific processes described in detail.

  • Identify the most stable behaviors to provide objective evidence about their evolution.
  • Register the process as soon as possible to ensure accurate and systematic data collection.
  • Make multiple records on the same subject before making any interference.
  • Use precise and understandable language, using direct appointments.
  • Order the record using a sequence of events.
  • Ensure that the record has a direct relationship with the target.
Guidelines to Follow for an Anecdotal Record
  • Take into account the objective of the research.
  • Accurately describe the incident or behavior.
  • Develop a complete anecdote, avoiding making the target registration a tool only to collect personal reactions to events.
  • Ensure adequate continuity in time.


Diaries are retrospective records of conduct. They can take different forms, from an open format to a predetermined structure, through partial systematization at different levels.