3.2.1 What is (naturalistic) observation?

Author(s): 
Laurence.Kohn
Author(s): 
Wendy.Christiaens

Observing is more than looking around, it is actively registering information along a number of dimensions, namely places (physical place or setting), persons (the actors involved) and activities (a series of acts) 83. Observing means having attention for (1) the detail of the observation, (2) visual as well as auditory information, (3) the time dimension, (4) the interaction between people, and (5) making links with mental categories (Mortelmans, 2009).

Observing includes roughly three steps:

  1. A descriptive step; the researcher enters the research setting and gets a general overview of the social setting.
  2. A focused step; more focused observations are a step closer to the research question. The aim is to search for relationships or connections between several elements in his research question, for example X is a characteristic of Y, or X is the result of Y. More concrete, suppose a researcher wants to study the way emergency care is organized in Belgium, he would do some descriptive observations in the emergency department of hospitals to get an idea of the general structures and processes characteristic for emergency care. In a next step he turns to his research question which is about how cost-effectiveness of emergency care could be attained. Hence the focus of his observation will relate to all possible costs and which could be avoided.
  3. Selective step 83;. In this last phase, after the researcher may have analysed his data (field notes), he may have identified a lack of information of one specific category of costs, e.g. cleaning and housekeeping costs, and may therefore decide to do extra observations in function of this specific aspect.