Using Observation As A Tool In Research Psychology Essay


According to Cohen L et al (2009,p396) one of the distinctive feature of observation as a research process is that it offers the investigators the opportunity to gather live data from naturally occurring social situation. Therefore we can say that observation is one way to gather information directly on what’s happening in a school or classroom rather than relying on second-hand.

Five dimensions of observation have been identified by Flick (1998:p.137) one of these is structured observation. In a structure observation information gathering – imposes structure and direction on what is to be observed. This enables the researcher to generate numerical data that in turn support comparisons involving settings frequencies, patterns trends to be noted. Therefore structure observation is a quantitative data collection method. The observer uses prepared schedules or checklists and the whole process is very systematic. According to Cohen, L et al (2009, p.397) using structure observation an observer will know in advance what is looking for and will have its observation categories ready in advance. Therefore the researcher will have its hypothesis decided and use the observational data to conform or reject these hypotheses.

According to Wilkinson and Birmigham (2003,p.129) structure observation involves the systematic counting of events and their relationships. An observation schedule could be used for example to monitor the conversation between a teacher and student.

In designing a schedule according to Dyer (1995,p186) one must consider a number of design tasks. He propose firstly the preliminary tasks. This involves the description of the research problem and the precise aim of the research. The second task he proposes is the observational system. The latter involves the identification of the behaviour to be observed and the development of clear and objective definitions of each category of behaviour. A third design task is the observational process where a researcher must identify an appropriate location to make your observation, also what data sampling procedure to use, decide whether to use one or more observers to collect information. Finally to design the data collection sheet, review the ethical standards of the investigation and could run a pilot study and make a any amendments to the observational system, or procedure.

According to Cohen L et al (2009,p400) there are five principal ways of entering data onto a structured observation schedule. These are event sampling, instantaneous sampling, interval recording, rating scales and duration recording. Event sampling involves the write down of a mark that is entered every time a statement is observed. Instantaneous sampling is used when the chronology of events are important. Therefore the researcher enters observation at standard intervals of time, for example every thirty seconds. Interval recording similar to instantaneous sampling requires the data to be entered at fixed intervals. The difference is that this approach is charting at the interval not at the instant. In Rating Scales the researcher is developing judgements about events being observed and entering responses into a rating scale. Duration recording is used to record behaviours that last a long time therefore this approach are driven by an event not the frequency of the observation.

2 A brief summary of the first methodological philosophy you have selected (around 500 words).

When determining the design for a project the researcher must consider the main research paradigms and their associated methodologies. A paradigm is defined as a worldview. Creswell (1994,p74) suggested that it is a ‘basic set of beliefs or assumptions that guide a researchers’s inquiry’. Cohen et al. (2000) suggested there were three main paradigms pertaining to research in education. These were positivism, interpretivism and critical theory/post moderninsm. We will first describe positivism

The first thinker according to Beck (1979) that used the word positivism for a philosophical position was the French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798-1857). His explanation of positivism looks at the observation and reason as a means of understanding behaviour; explanation proceeds by way of scientific description.

According to SG (p.79) positivism is a philosophy that identifies a way of thinking regarding knowledge and enquiry that takes natural science as the model and seeks to apply the scientific method to new fields. Therefore according Cohen L et al (2009,p10) there to positivist here takes the stance that the social scientist is an observer of social reality. Furthermore the social scientist produces the end-report of an investigation in terms paralleled to those of social science. This implies that their analyses must be expressed in rules of the same kind that have been established in relation to natural phenomena.

A clear and simple definition is given by Livesey (2006) : ‘Positivism means ‘scientific’ and positivist methodologies argue its possible and desirable to study social behaviours in ways similar to those used by natural scientists to study behaviours in the natural world.’

Positivists believe that social systems consist of structures that exist independenly of individuals. The behaviour at the institutional level of society and people experience structures as forces that push us to behave in ways that shape individual behaviour choices.

An example of this could be the language structure and the rules that student or teachers interact. An action could be to study the causes of the behaviour rather than their effects. One could argue that structures are real and objectives forces; although they cannot be seen, their effects can be observed.

What commands social behaviours can be discovered using similar methods to those used in science such as Physics where the use of systematic observations can provide high reliable knowledge.

In Positivism the quantitative methods are generally favoured because they allow for the collection of factual data. This is also supported by the SG (p.79) where it specifies that positivists have adopted the experimental physics as their model. Thus using experimental methods, statistical analysis to measure phenomena and look for statistical relationships between variables.

For positivists knowledge consists of identifying facts about how and why people behave as they do and eventually making connections between theories that explain behaviour. To produce such knowledge it is important to follow clear procedures. This allows eliminating bias and achieving a procedural objectivity. Furthermore it allows the replication of the research and test whether the knowledge is sound.

The requirements of Positivism are met by methods such as questionnaires structure interviews, structure observation are acceptable because they offer higher potential levels of reliability than qualitative methods.

3 An assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of structured observation from this point of view (around 1000 words).

In this section of the essay we will examine advantages and disadvantages the structure observation through Positivism.

As we have defined earlier Positivism is the approach of natural science. Consequently positivist studies according to Orlikowski and Sund Baroudi (1999, p51) are :

‘.. premised on the existence of a priori fixed relationships within phenomena which are typically investigated with structured instrumentation. Such studies serve primarily to test theory, in an attempt to increase the predictive understanding of the phenomena.”

One tool that uses structure instrumentation is the structure observation that we have described earlier. We will look at this from the perspective of the positivism. As we have stated earlier Positivism is the philosophical methodology which is using primarily quantitative methods and as we have seen in the first part structure observation is a quantitative data collection method. Therefore structure observation tries to provide data to answer the what Cohen (2006, p17) identifies a hypothesis meaning a statement indicating a relationship between two or more of the chosen elements and stated in such a way as to provide a clear implication for testing.

In order to describe some of the advantages and disadvantages a researcher can use structure observation to perform an investigation of the school organization. Looking at this through a positivist manner the investigation should taking place in natural world i.e school and studies the behaviour of a key person. This will allow the measure of phenomena and look for statistical relationships. To do that according to William J (1982) a researcher could investigate a single position that of the principal. Structure observation will allow the research to design an observational schedule in order to examine particular behaviours of the principle. This could be the interaction with teachers or with parents.

There are several reasons why structure observations as a data collection is attractive, one of them is that it can produce for the investigator a large volume of data. This is because the fine detail in the school system can be examined in great depth in relation to the position in focus.

A further advantage of structure observation is that it can assure validity and will produce the same results if the tool is used by another positivist researcher.

Looking at the advantages of structure observation one can identify that it enables behaviour to be recorded in context. That is the subjects are observed in the in their job settings with all organizational noise factors present and operating. Consequently the use of this technique reveals an ecological or environmental side of organization activity.

The methods temporal quality gives it a much more sensitive than other field techniques to the variety of briefs task in which the subject could engage as part of daily routine or role performance. Someone can measure the pace of the work readily. In addition according to Martin (1980) structure observation has proven a helpful tool in measuring interruptions and rhythmic phenomena in the subject’s task performance.

A further advantage is that as Robson (2002,p374) says, what people do may differ from what they say they do, and observation provides a reality check. In addition observation enables the researcher to view the behaviour daily that otherwise might be taken for granted, expected or go unnoticed Cooper and Schindler (2001, p374)

However, there are also disadvantages. The first disadvantage of structure observation is that requires a lot from the researcher. To begin with it demands a vast amount of time in the field and also in preparation. The latter stems from the need to design a structure observation schedule and possible to pilot this. Secondly it and even more important the researcher has to compromise the amount of the control over the situation with more traditional research. Therefore the observer must adopt a reactive posture rather than a proactive one. Finally a large and unwieldy volume of data is produced using structure observation. Without the proper care, delicate trends can be missed from a casual observer during the conceptualization phase.

Based on the fact that structure observation is undertaken to a single position within one or more organisations the complete picture of the school can start when additional studies of other key actors are ready. Therefore there is a need to use a research team in order to obtain data that provide various positions in the organisation of the school.

Because of the delegate nature of some interactions in public schools there is a possibility that the observer is excluded from some situations. These could be confidential conferences, evening activities and off site meetings. Further to the above Bailey (1994,p.245-246) identifies difficulties of gaining access identifies that the lack of control on observing in natural setting may render difficulties in measurement negotiating entry and difficulties in maintaining anonymity.

For the particular subject which involves the recording of activities of a single actor, structure observation may limit observer bias that could suggest a threat to the validity of this technique as well as other forms of field investigation. The danger of course is there.

Another difficulty occurs during the data synthesis stage since the structure observation is a quantitatively technique the importance of infrequently performed but extremely important tasks can become the victim of numerical assessment. Activities like this need to clear out the normal flow and their significance noted without application of ordinarily metric operations.

The risk of affecting the behaviour of the actors in the system study is evident. The subject could alter consciously or unconsciously accustom work patterns because of the presence of the observer.

Finally Bennet (et al (1984) has identified several concerns that the method is behaviourist, and neglects any mention of the intentions or motivations of the people observed. The individual’s subjectivity is lost to an aggregated score. There is an assumption that the observed behaviour provides evidence of underlying feelings, more specific concepts or constructs can be crudely measured in observed occurrences.

We have seen the advantages and disadvantage of undertaking a quantitative study that tries to give a detailed examination of a thick slice of school time. This takes the positivist approach to investigate the principal behaviour.

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4 A brief summary of the second methodological philosophy you have selected (around 500 words).

Neuman (2000) identifies that interpretivism has its origins in the Social Sciences through the work of Max Weber (1864-1920) and Willem Dilthey (1833-1911). Dilthey is said to have argued the existence of two fundamental types of science, Naturwissenschaft based on the principles of ‘abstract explanation’ and Gesteswissenschaft based on the principles of ’empathetic understanding’. Weber has argued towards the latter view in his conceptualisation of Sociology as a science of and for social action (Newman 2000). Therefore it has been suggested that Interpretivism arose as an opposing paradigm to the need to make a natural science out of Social Sciences. Interpretivism was defined by Neuman (2000) as : “.. the systematic analysis of socially meaningful action through the direct detailed observation of people in natural settings in order to arrive at understandings and interpretations of how people create and maintain their social worlds”

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The rival between positivism and interpretivism origins from the 19 century although it became clearer within the field of education research the last few decades. Interpretivism research in social science focused on quantifying what happens in social phenomena and also concerned with providing an explanation of the phenomena from the experiences of the participants of the events. The understanding and interpretating the context of research subject for interpretivists, allows to be more relevant and important than the scientific approach of testing hypothesis and producing scientific laws to explain the world. Interpretivists believe that the social researchers are subjective and that the positivist scientific method could not be applied in research in the social sciences.

The attempt of interpretive research is to search for patterns and build an understanding of meanings, social phenomena, values and beliefs. As Cohen and Manion (1996,p36) commented: “The central endeavour in the context of the interpretive paradigm is to understand the subjective world of human experience”. Interpretivist have argued that instead of viewing people’s personal perceptions, interpretations, judgements and values as potential forms of contamination in the research, and therefore something to be controlled, this subjectivity should be seen as the starting point for the research. According to Candy (1989) the effort of interpretivism was to understand the values, attitudes and beliefs that influence people’s actions.

According to SG(p.81) interpretivism starting point is in insisting on differentiating between the nature of the phenomena under investigation by the natural sciences and the nature of those studied by educational researchers, historian and social scientist. In simple words it argues that people define their surroundings and themselves in manners that are modelled by the particular cultures in which they live.

Therefore the difference between positivist and interpretivism is the assumptions about the nature of social phenomena. This implies that different approaches are used to gain knowledge of these phenomena. Positivist use data collections tools such as questionnaires to ensure comparability of responses and assume the relative standard patterns of social phenomena. On the other hand interpretive employ different ways of investigating people’s perceptions and attitudes and how theses are formed by cultural contexts. Therefore researchers using Intepretivism philosophy turns towards the collection of qualitative data and uses methods such as unstructured interviews and participant observation that provide this type of data.

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5 An assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of structured observation from this second point of view (around 1000 words).

As we have seen Interpretive is mostly a qualitative approach to educational research. For example if for example a researcher needed to examine the way students interpret and experience a particular lesson (for example Greek Literature) and the relationships developed among students and students with teacher. Within the interpretive approach someone could use qualitative study to encapsulate the experiences of students. Qualitative research uses naturalistic approach that aims to understand phenomena in context-specific settings such us a real world setting where the researcher does not attempt to manipulate “the phenomenon of interest” Patton (2002, p39). However in order to collect data to note the interactions as well as types of behaviours between students structure observation could be used. This brings out that regardless philosophical approach the use of multiple or mixed methods could offer a more complete knowledge and explanation. Tashakkori and Teddlie (1998) and Cresswell et. Al (2003) suggested using a mixed methodology that is both quantitative and qualitative research methods and tools in an individual project.


As we have identified structure observation offers the researcher the possibility to code categories of behaviour. These discrete behaviour codes according to Westerman (2006) provide concrete examples of meaningful constructs and quantitative procedures like Structure observation constitute concrete examples of meaningful processes. Therefore structured observation can be extremely useful in an interpretive research to clarify revise and expand understanding of ideas about a particular phenomena meaning. This is also supported by Study Guide p.125 where it identifies that qualitative analysis can draw data from structure observations concerning different actors or situations. The effort is to create a set of categories that capture the themes. This will provide a description or explanation of the people and situations being studied. When reaching the end of the research proves this could be tested using contrary evidence within the data already collected or by collecting additional data in the same or a new situation.

Furthermore the used of the discrete behaviour codes developed through structure observation can help in learning about general principles because these are not concretely meaningful, they are not abstracts ideas. The above quantitative procedure would help in a hypothetical situation and they provide assistance in a real research situation in which simultaneously must learn the principles and what they mean concretely.

Cohen et. Al (2000) suggested that observation methods are powerful tools for gaining insights into situations. Nevertheless, observation on its own does not provide any insights into what the participants were thinking or what motivated them. One advantage of using observation as a research tool is that it allows the observer to record actual behaviours. In a mixed method research project it could use semi-structured interviews to compare data with what the participants subsequently said.

Another advantage could be that structure observation can be used to discover that specific concrete forms have a role to play in many situations and not only the original measurement context. These concrete forms were referred by Merleau-Ponty (1962) as “sediment”. The latter plays a part in psychological phenomena, and a quantitative procedure such as structure observation can be very helpful because it enables the learning of these aspects of practical activity.

Another strength that can provide Structure observation is the useful features of research procedures in general. More specific they enhance the ability to investigate group differences without being influenced by dramatic instances of the phenomenon.

Also limitations of structure observation are that it neglects the importance of contexts. Therefore overlooking the fact that behaviours may be context specific. Being concerned with the observable a researcher could overlook unintended outcomes which possibly have value. Danziger (1985, 1990) have identified that some researchers view the numeric ordering of data coming for example through Structure Observation, reflect the logical structure and offer little insight into the ‘lived experiences and meanings of human beings in context’.

Another limitation of Structured Observation according to Westerman (2006, p.194) from the point of view of interpretivism is that does not provide a way to examine hypothesized associations in a transparent way. Instead researchers create the paradigm they use to study ideas regarding causal processes or covariation that bases their understanding of the meanings related to the phenomena of interest. Therefore researchers rarely recognise the layers of meaning and interpretation that supply’s the research paradigms and theories under consideration.

A further limitation is that using structure observation two interpretivism researches will not conclude to the same results. They will most probably end up with a different end-product with

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It is possible that some aspects of human action and experience ca be meangfully intepretet in terms of frequency relevance of which bears directly to the some aspects

6 A conclusion exploring the implications of the comparative assessment you have carried out (around 1000 words).

What we have done here is tried to describe structure observation as a data collection method through the philosophy of positivism and interpretivism. The meaning of this is that the philosophies look at the world in a particular manner each with its merits and negatives. The two are trying to approach at research project in a different perspective in order to produce an end product useful to the research community. Both can use structure observation in order to collect data and use to address a research problem. These two Paradigms as we have previously associated to them in section two of this assignment are associate with quantitative and qualitative methods.

We will have a look at what the Paradigms look in general

The Paradigm Wars as very well Cage (1989) portrayed have been around for decades. Kuhn (1996) argued that Paradigms are sets of beliefs examples traditions that guide a certain scientific on how to conduct its practices. Kuhn suggests that the “paradigms gain their status when they solve more successfully than their competitors in solving a few problems that the group of practitioners has come to recognise as acute” (p.23)

However paradigms in social world rarely replace each other by falsification Erickson (1986); Lakatos, 1978; They coexist and they are used when they are appropriate. Some research questions lend themselves to the use of quantitative methods

According to Erickson (1977, p58) the key issue is “deciding what makes sense to count” and how it can strengthen the plausibility of the researcher’s assertions




Approximately 250 words