What is observation in psychology

The method of observation Dr. Petra Scheibler

“Observation” can be understood to mean both an everyday activity and a certain methodical, scientifically sound action in the context of numerous psychosocial and other contexts. In order to use this method successfully, certain criteria must be taken into account.

1. Introduction

In everyday life, observations are the necessary prerequisites for judging and acting. In all psychosocial fields of activity and especially in scientific research, they are an important prerequisite for understanding something, developing appropriate ways of acting and gaining knowledge.

Observation means: active and intensive examination of the observer with the observation situation and the interaction partners. Therefore, observations are never ready-made images of reality: they are actively designed, i. In other words, each observer determines and structures the specific content of the observation through individual interests, attitudes, emotional factors, experiences, etc.

2. Scientific observation

Scientific observation is always based on relevant scientific quality criteria and is mostly theory-based, without foregoing subjective aspects. Both qualitative and quantitative survey and evaluation methods can be used. Observations can therefore produce quantitative data for statistical hypothesis testing as well as qualitative data for which an interpretive approach to the observed events is in the foreground. Both approaches differ from everyday observations in that the typical character of subjectivity and the anecdotal is counteracted by standardization, intersubjective verifiability and documentation. Observations can only be reported in linguistic (i.e. translated) form. Accordingly, the various language and communication problems must be taken into account when creating observation reports.

Scientific observations are made intentionally: They always presuppose a goal and a purpose and therefore represent a planned company. Depending on the research question, certain, previously selected aspects of the field of perception are examined more closely, while others are neglected. Observations are always aimed at evaluating the results. What is perceived must therefore be “mapped” onto a system of signs that have agreed meanings. The results of a scientific observation should be as objective as possible and ideally replicable, which unfortunately often cannot be achieved for many observation contexts.

3. Differentiation from other scientific survey methods

Especially when compared to the method of Measurement similarities can be seen at first glance. From a formal point of view, both methods are a mapping process. But one speaks of measurement only if not only the mapping rule is defined in advance, but also the interpretability of the results is completely determined.

In certain cases, observation can also be viewed as a measurement, but this does not apply if what is perceived is described in everyday and scientific language. In this case, the method of observation is far from formally precisely describable measurement rules. This applies to the vast majority of observation areas.

Compared to many Interview procedure the method of observation can be used far less directive, especially if the observer does not participate in the observation (covert observation).

At Experiments the control of the examination conditions and their deliberate, systematic manipulation to check hypotheses and theories are in the foreground. This is a deductive Action. This objective can also be achieved using the method of systematic observation, but under less strict control conditions.

In addition, the method of observation opens up a inductive Approach the opportunity to engage with the research subject in a non-controlling way, as impartially as possible and without theoretical assumptions. This is a heuristic observation. It enables connections and phenomena to be discovered that cannot be seen through deductive data collection methods such as experiments.

4. Areas of application of observation as a method

The observation method is always advantageous when researchers want to gather first impressions and information in a new study area. This is especially true if the expression (e.g. facial expressions and gestures) of the target group is important for the interpretation of a course of action. The impressions and information obtained can then be worked out into testable hypotheses in a later step.

A particular advantage of the observation method is that it can reduce the negative influences on the survey situation. If it is feared that a survey, test or laboratory situation could impair the behavior of the target persons, but the question promises to gain knowledge, then the method of observation is to be regarded as the method of choice. This also applies if it is to be expected that verbal self-portrayals of the target persons can consciously or unconsciously falsify the behavior to be researched. In these cases, discrete observations provide more realistic information than survey methods in which the target persons or groups consciously experience themselves in the role of a test person.

5. Forms of observation

Recommended reading

Greve, W. & Wentura, D. (1997). Scientific observation. An introduction (2nd, corrected edition). Weinheim: Psychology Publishing Union

Hussy, W., Schreier, M. & Echterhoff, G. (2010). Research methods in psychology and social sciences. Berlin: Springer

Martin, E. & Wawrinowski, U. (2006). Observational theory. Theory and practice of reflected observation and assessment. Weinheim: Beltz Juventa