3.2.5 Modalities of data collection

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

3.2.5.1        Participant versus direct observation

The role to adopt during observation and the extent to which participants are fully informed are somewhat intertwined84. Typically researchers refer to Gold’s typology of research roles85:

  • The complete observer, who maintains some distance, does not interact and whose role is concealed;
  • The observer as participant, who undertakes intermittent observation alongside interviewing, but whose role is known;
  • The participant as observer, who undertakes prolonged observation, is involved in all the central activities of the organization and whose role is known;
  • The complete participant, who interacts within the social situation, but again whose role is concealed.

Mack et al.54 describe observing as remaining an “outsider” and simply observing and documenting events or behaviors being studied, while participating is taking part in the activity while also documenting it. Pure observing, without participating is a situations that in fact seldom occurs, because once you are present, you are visible, you influence the activities around you, you participate in some degree. There are two reasons for this participation, or to better understand the local perspective, or in order not to call attention to yourself54.

3.2.5.2        Structured versus unstructured observation

  • Structured observations are associated with the positivist paradigm and aim at recording physical and verbal behavior by means of a list of predetermined behaviours84.
  • Unstructured observations are not ‘unstructured’ in the sense of unsystematic or messy, “instead, observers using unstructured methods usually enter ‘the field’ with no predetermined notions as to the discrete behaviours that they might observe. They may have some ideas as to what to observe, but these may change over time as they gather data and gain experience in the particular setting. Moreover, in unstructured observation the researcher may adopt a number of roles from complete participant to complete observer, whereas in structured observation the intention is always to ‘stand apart’ from that which is being observed” (p307)84.

3.2.5.3        Overt versus covert observation

Covert observation corresponds to two roles in Gold’s typology85, i.e. complete observer and complete participant (see above). Most authors agree that covert observation is only legitimate in very specific circumstances and should be avoided. Mack et al. 54 formulate the following ethical guideline regarding observations: “When conducting participant observation, you should be discreet enough about who you are and what you are doing that you do not disrupt normal activity, yet open enough that the people you observe and interact with do not feel that your presence compromises their privacy.”(p. 16) As with all qualitative research methods, researchers must also protect the identities of the people they observe or with whom they interact, even if informally. “Maintaining confidentiality means ensuring that particual individuals can never be linked to the data they provide54