Qualitative Research Methods, Part 3 of 4: Qualitative Observation

We’ve already made it to part three of four in our series about qualitative research methods: qualitative observation! So far, we covered conducting focus groups and in-depth interviews in parts one and two. Today, we’re moving on to a technique that allows researchers to collect rich and unique information.

That is, if they know this method’s best practices, benefits, and limitations. With that in mind, let’s move on to an introduction to qualitative observations and precisely what this QA research method entails.

Understand Qualitative Observation 

Observations involve systematically watching and recording behaviors, interactions, and events in their natural setting. This approach allows researchers to immerse themselves in the context of the study and gain firsthand insights into the participants’ actions and behaviors. 

Unlike surveys or focus groups, which rely on self-reporting, observations provide unfiltered and authentic data, making it a powerful tool for researchers seeking to understand complex human behaviors and social dynamics.

This isn’t to say self-reporting data isn’t valuable—there are just some areas of research where observations might be the best, or only, method available. 

What Qualitative Observations Entail

Now let’s get into some of the characteristics of observations that define the method.

1. Naturalistic setting

Researchers typically observe in natural settings, like public parks, events, or shopping malls. This allows researchers to observe participants in their everyday environment and gain insight into how they behave in different circumstances.

2. Unobtrusive methods

Researchers must ensure participants don’t feel like they are being watched, which is why they use unobtrusive observational techniques. This means researchers can’t intervene or disrupt the natural setting of their study. Typically, they should remain out of sight when possible while still collecting data.

3. Field notes and recordings

Observations typically involve taking detailed field notes and even recordings of interactions. This helps researchers keep an accurate record of what happened during the study, which they can analyze later.

Read about the benefits of transcribing text from audio recordings next.

4. Subjective interpretation

Data collected through observations is not always objective and may be subject to personal interpretations or biases. Researchers must take extra care to ensure their data collection methods remain unbiased and do not impact their findings in any way.

Types of Observational Data

Observations can take on a few different forms. Here are some of the most common.

Participant observation vs. non-participant observation

Researchers can adopt different roles during observations. Primarily these roles are either participant vs. non-participant:

  • Participant observation: The researcher actively engages with the subjects, becoming a part of the social context they study
  • Non-participant observation: The researcher remains an external observer, simply recording events without active participation

Structured vs. unstructured observations

Observations can be either structured or unstructured:

  • Structured observations: These involve predefined categories or behaviors the researcher looks for during the study.
  • Unstructured observations: These allow the researcher to be more open and flexible, capturing various behaviors and interactions that may emerge during the study.

Longitudinal observations

Researchers can also conduct longitudinal observations, collecting data over an extended period. This approach lets researchers study changes in behaviors and social dynamics over time.

Benefits of Qualitative Observation

We’ll now turn our focus to some of the advantages of using this method for your research.

Depth and richness

When done correctly, observational research can provide incredibly detailed insights into the behavior of research subjects. This depth and richness of data is unparalleled compared to other methods.

Unobtrusive measurement

Another advantage of observations is they are often less intrusive than other data collection methods, such as surveys or interviews. This allows for a more natural social environment where participants are less likely to be affected by the researcher’s presence.


Observational research is typically cost-effective, requiring little resources and equipment beyond note-taking tools.

On the subject of cost-effectiveness, see the top 11 free survey builders next.

Contextual understanding

Observations enable researchers to understand the context in which behaviors occur, providing valuable contextual insights.

Non-verbal communication

Observational research also allows for examining non-verbal cues, expressions, and body language between participants—researchers might miss these during other methods.

As you can see, observational research offers many advantages and can provide incredibly detailed data when done correctly. As such, it’s an invaluable tool for many social scientists looking to gain rich insights into their research topic.

Limitations of Observations in Qualitative Research

While it might be rich with benefits, there are also potential drawbacks or signs it isn’t suitable for your own research.

Observer bias

The researcher’s presence during observations can influence participants’ behavior or the interpretation of data, leading to observer bias. This bias may arise from the researcher’s preconceived notions or expectations, affecting the way they perceive and record the observed behaviors.

Fortunately, there are ways to mitigate observer bias.

For starters, researchers must:

  • Maintain reflexivity and objectivity
  • Adhere to predefined criteria for data collection
  • Consider using multiple observers for validation


Regardless of the type of qualitative research (including qualitative observations) you conduct, you know they can take time! They demand considerable effort and resources, particularly in longitudinal studies.

As a researcher, you must dedicate ample time to be present in the research setting, capturing data over extended periods to understand the phenomena you’re studying comprehensively.

Despite the time investment, the in-depth and authentic data obtained through observations can outweigh the challenges.

Keep in mind, there is also qualitative analysis software out there that makes your research easier—including LiGRE!


In certain observational scenarios, the mere presence of an observer can alter participants’ behavior, leading to the Hawthorne effect—when individuals may modify their actions or responses due to the awareness of being observed. This results in behavior that doesn’t necessarily represent their typical conduct.

As a researcher, you can adopt a non-participant observation approach or employ discreet observation techniques to overcome this.

Ethical concerns

Ethical issues can arise when observing people in private or sensitive situations. Researchers must navigate these concerns carefully to respect participants’ rights and privacy. Obtaining informed consent is essential, especially when dealing with vulnerable populations or studying sensitive topics.

Striking a balance between the research objectives and ethical considerations is paramount to conducting responsible observational studies.

Qualitative Observation FAQs

Finally, here are four common questions about this type of research.

What is qualitative observation?

This research method involves using your senses to observe settings and participants as they naturally occur. It aims to uncover the meaning of social phenomena by focusing on behavior, speech, and other communication cues.

What do qualitative observations focus on?

In research settings, qualitative observations typically focus on:

  • Behaviors
  • Interactions
  • Processes

What are some qualitative observation examples?

Examples range from observing customer behavior in retail stores to monitoring employees’ interactions with patients in a hospital.

What are the limitations of qualitative observation?

Like any research method, qualitative observation has its own set of limitations.

These include:

  • Difficulty in objectively interpreting data
  • Potential for researcher bias
  • Ethical issues related to privacy

Additionally, participants may be aware or become aware during the process, which could influence their behavior. But don’t be discouraged—when used properly, this data collection technique can be valuable for uncovering social phenomena.


To help you analyze and organize your qualitative research data, including qualitative observations, turn to LiGRE. With tools like survey builders, and automatic transcription, you’ll have everything you need for a successful project.

Try LiGRE today for free to see what our QDA tools can do for you.

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