Research Writing

Direct observation characteristics types and example

Direct observation is a method of collecting data about an individual phenomenon or situation. It is characterized by the fact that the investigator is in the place where the event occurs without interfering with or altering the environment, otherwise the data obtained would not be valid.

This method of data collection, also called primary research, is used when other systems (such as surveys, questionnaires, etc.) are not effective.

At the moment of direct observation, one can proceed in two ways: secretly (if the object does not know that it is being observed) or overtly (if the object is aware of being observed).

However, the second method is not used in certain contexts, such as in the analysis of human behaviors, as people may act differently due to the fact that they are being monitored.

Characteristics of direct observation

non intrusive

Direct observation is characterized by not being intrusive. This means that the observed object unfolds undisturbed by the observer.

For this reason, the data obtained by this method are recognized and have a reputation in the research area.

Observer non-participation

In direct observation, the observer assumes a discreet role, as if he were a fly on the wall. For this reason, you should not suggest or comment on participants.

Long term

Direct observation studies usually last more than a week. This is done for two reasons. First, to ensure that the subject feels comfortable with the viewer and acts naturally.

Secondly, in order to obtain all the necessary data for the research that is carried out.

Objective and subjective results

The results obtained by this method can be objective and subjective.

Objectives involve pictures (for example, the time it takes for the object to perform a certain activity), while subjective ones include impressions (for example, the anxiety that a certain activity generated in the object).

Few observers needed

Direct observation offers advantages that other data collection methods do not. The most relevant is that it allows studying the interaction of large groups without having to increase the number of observers: a single researcher can study a group of 10 people.

Direct observation types

Direct observation can be of two types: covert and overt. Covert observation is the more widely used of the two. This method consists of observing the object without it knowing that it is being observed.

Manifest observation

Manifest observation occurs when the object is being observed. This method is not often used because the “Hawthorne effect” can occur.

This effect is that people can behave differently when they are aware that they are being watched. So, the data obtained would be unreliable.

Other authors point out that direct classification can be free or structured. It is free when a specific format is not followed. In this case, the researcher collects the observations, but does not give them a certain order.

structured observation

In turn, it is structured when different situations are prepared to observe changes in the behavior of the object. In this case, the researcher groups the impressions obtained, facilitating the subsequent analysis of the data.

When more than one object is observed, structured observation is generally preferred, as it allows comparing the results produced by each of those observed.

When is direct observation used?

Direct observation is used when you want to study the behavior of a person or a group of people in a certain situation.

Sometimes the situation is natural and it is the observer who enters the environment of the observed. In other cases, the situation is recreated by the researchers, so that the observed is introduced into an artificial environment.

The first case occurs mainly in social studies. An example of this would be the analysis of the behavior of high school students.

The second case occurs more than anything in commercial studies. For example, when you want to launch a new product on the market, direct observation is made to establish the public’s reaction to the product.

Necessary elements in direct observation


Sometimes the observation process can take weeks. Therefore, the main element of this collection method is commitment, both by the observer and the observed.

In addition to commitment, patience and perseverance are important. It may be that the first observation sessions do not collect data relevant to the research. However, it is necessary to continue if you want to give a proper conclusion to the study.

technical team

Depending on the type of investigation being carried out, it may be necessary to have audio and video recording equipment.

Analyzing the recordings requires more work on the part of the investigator. However, it represents an advantage that constitutes a permanent record of the collected data.

Possible licenses

Finally, it is necessary to have approval not only from the people observed, but also from the institution where the study is carried out. In case the objects are smaller, it is also important to have the permission of the delegates.

Making observations without the consent of the participants raises ethical problems that cast doubt on the research results. It can even create legal problems.

Factors to consider when doing direct observation

There are several factors that can affect the results obtained. If the object of study knows that it is being observed, the relationship between the observer and the observed must be taken into account: do they have a relationship or are they unknown?

If they’re in a relationship, the object might feel comfortable, but if it’s unfamiliar, it might feel intimidated.

On the other hand, whether or not the object knows what is being observed, one must consider the impartiality of the observer: does the observer have any reason to change the results obtained or, on the contrary, is he impartial?

Direct observation survey example

In the Natural Park of Doñana (Spain), with a mild and Mediterranean climate, the emperor penguins, typical of polar climates, appear by surprise. Faced with such an unexpected visit, biologists and conservationists notify specialists of this species, who travel to the park to carry out an investigation into why they decided to move there.

For a few weeks, experts watch the penguins’ every move in their new habitat (behavior, feeding mode, interaction with the environment, etc.). For this, they always keep their distance so as not to change the way the birds act.

When they think they have the maximum amount of information written down, they leave the park and start a deeper analysis to draw conclusions.

This would be a direct observation method because:

– Specialists were on site to observe the phenomenon

– It is secret, as attempts were made to prevent the penguins from perceiving the human presence.

“It’s been a long time, collecting data for two weeks.

– It was not invasive, with the observer playing a non-polluting role.

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