The Observational Method

Observation is one of the main elements of the scientific method. It allows the acquisition of valuable information about the object of study. We take a look at the method that's based on this process: the observational method.
The Observational Method

Last update: 04 May, 2022

The observational method, as its name suggests, is associated with observation. This is nothing more than the active acquisition of information about a phenomenon. To observe is to carefully perceive an object, an action in which the researcher knows what they want to analyze and why (Díaz, 2011).

Observation is constituted as a process whose main function is to collect information. The collection implies a coding activity. This means that the selected raw information is translated by means of a code to be transmitted (Fabbri, 1998). Observation isn’t simply a perceptual process that makes sensations conscious, it’s also an organizing process.

As a scientific method, observation is characterized by:

  • Serving a research objective.
  • Being systematically planned.
  • Being controlled and related to more general propositions.
  • Subject to validity and reliability checks.

The observational method

The observational method is a scientific procedure in which the occurrence of perceptible behaviors is revealed. These behaviors are organized and analyzed (both qualitative and quantitative). It’s conducted with the use of instruments and parameters that make it possible to detect the relationships between them. (Anguera, 2003).

The observational method contrasts hypotheses, replicates results obtained and contributes to the theoretical development of the disciplinary field to which it’s circumscribed. Furthermore, it helps the researcher to keep track of the variables throughout the research process (Anguera and Hernández, 2014).

In this method, the researcher doesn’t manipulate behaviors as in experimental or quasi-experimental research designs. However, they do control possible extraneous variables that may affect or distort the data. With this control, they ensure that the independent variables are the only ones responsible for the effects on the dependent variables.

Woman looking at research data on the computer

Phases of the observational method

Next, we’ll review the eight phases of the observational method as proposed by Anguera (2003).

1) Exploratory phase

In this phase, the aim is for the researcher to specify the object of study, and reduce, or eliminate the reactivity of the observed subject. Also to increase the level of training of the observer, and collect information. During this stage, they acquire detailed knowledge and familiarize themselves with the observation situation.

2) Prior disposition

At this stage of the observational method, the researcher must take the following aspects into account. They’re aimed at facilitating the procedure and avoiding errors:

  • Maintenance of inter-sessional constancy. To guarantee maximum equality between the different observation sessions.
  • Maintenance of intra-sessional constancy. To ensure that the session isn’t interrupted by an unexpected event that causes a break in activity.
  • Treatment of temporary disruptions. To guarantee the solution of situations that interrupt the observation process.
  • Timing. Preparation of a plan or agenda related to the succession of activities to be carried out throughout the observation process.
  • Identification of the observation session. To include information related to the physical environment, the activity to be carried out (staging a narrative, prosocial episodes, learning of new behaviors, etc.), the social level of the subjects observed, information of an institutional or institutional nature, and organizational (duration of activities in their usual context).

3) Observational sampling plan

In this phase, the researcher plans when the observations will be made to obtain the corresponding record. The optimal situation would be for them to obtain a continuous record, equivalent to the totality of the reality they intend to study.

Some elements for them to take into account are the observation period, the frequency of the sessions, the minimum number of sessions, and the criteria for starting and ending the sessions.

4) Preparation of the instrument

At this stage, the researcher creates an instrument to record the information they’ve collected. Two examples are the category system and the field format. The category system is of higher rank, while the field formats are more flexible and suitable in complex empirical situations.

5) Registration and encryption

This stage of the observational method involves collecting data from reality and translating it into a specific medium. The researcher must transcribe the data in a descriptive record. They’ll then break it down into behavior units to give rise to a semi-systematized record. Later, they’ll progressively systematize the record.

6) Getting parameters

The researcher records the following parameters in this phase:

  • Frequency. The number of actions or occurrences of the behavior observed.
  • Order. The sequence of the different behaviors.
  • Duration. The time of appearance of the behavior.
  • Latency. The time that elapses between the presentation of a stimulus and the appearance of the behavior.

7) Data quality control

Once the data has been collected, they must guarantee the quality of the data. The most basic of the control requirements is the reliability of the observational record. They must also ensure validity. This means that they measured what they intended to.

8) Data analysis

The last phase of the observational method is the analysis of the data. From this, the researcher obtains their results. These findings should be logically related to the objectives set at the beginning of the investigation. Also, to any literature on similar issues.

man doing statistics

Advantages and limitations of the observational method

Finally, we’ll review some advantages and limitations of the observational method.


  • Researchers obtain the information as it happens.
  • They’re able to learn and study many forms of behavior.
  • They’re able to study subjects who can’t provide verbal reports. For example, infants, animals, etc.
  • They can use the method in cases where there’s resistance to the investigation by the subjects.


  • The possibility of foreign and hidden factors interfering.
  • The practical possibility of applying the observation techniques is limited by the duration of the events.
  • Not all observed data can be quantified, although it usually can be.

To conclude, the observational method isn’t based on an ordinary and simple observation. In fact, it’s a complex and scientific observation. It seeks to provide objective, valid, and reliable knowledge. Through its rigorous and systematic application, a researcher can grasp the reality that they want to study. They’re also able to collect relevant information to achieve the objectives of their research.

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