Sometimes researchers will go to a certain place to watch and examine what is happening in that setting and document what they see. This qualitative method is referred to as observation. There are two forms of observation: participant observation, where the researcher takes part in the activities of the group, and nonparticipant or onlooker observation, where the researcher simply observes the activities. Most of the Urban Institute’s work is onlooker observation.

What is observation used to measure?

Observational data collection provides descriptions of the setting (e.g., comfort, privacy), any activities taking place in that setting, the participants, and their interactions with others. For example, a researcher might observe a process, such as enrolling a client in a program. Observational data would also include the activities of the program staff member and of the applicant, the length of the process, and the tone and quality of the interactions between the staff member and the applicant (e.g., friendly and helpful, encouraging or discouraging).

How does it work?

Observation can provide researchers with a better understanding of how a program or activity operates because it allows researchers to witness things that program staff, participants, or residents might not routinely notice or mention in an interview. It also allows researchers to learn about things that interview or focus group respondents might be unwilling to discuss.

The research questions help to determine what settings to observe and when. For example, a researcher who wants to understand how a program serving single mothers accommodates the needs of their participants might choose to observe the waiting room or lobby of the program office at one of the office’s busier periods. Observations would address things such as how the room is furnished and if toys or activities are made available for children to use as they wait.

For some studies, researchers will prepare a structured observation guide that identifies what researchers should be looking for on site. This ensures that all members of the research team have a clear, consistent understanding of what they should be observing on site and provides a template for documenting that information. However, researchers are also trained to note things not on the observation guide that appear to be important when on site.

Urban Institute studies often observe program facilities, human and social environments, program activities and participant behaviors (e.g., classrooms, group settings, client interviews or procedures, and case management meetings), special events, and informal interactions or unplanned activities. The observation may focus on documenting activities and describing interactions between staff, clients, partner organizations, staff and/or clients, and equipment and technology.

Most often, researchers are introduced as observers so that participants in the area are made aware that the observation is happening. This is referred to as overt observation. Researchers bring descriptions of the study and business cards with them on site should any participant in the observation wish for more information.

After being introduced as an observer, researchers act as inconspicuously as possible in the setting (e.g., being quiet, not asking questions of participants), so that people act as naturally as possible. Observers may also choose to wait to document what they see until after the observation period is complete, if active note-taking in the setting would be obtrusive.

Observations yield snapshots and may not be representative. Therefore, it is important to triangulate findings from observation with other on-site activities (e.g., interviews and focus groups) to get the most comprehensive description and understanding.


Related research

Tribal Food Assistance: A Comparison of the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [/research/publication/tribal-food-assistance]

Youth Count! Process Study [/research/publication/youth-count-process-study

Research Methods Data collection Research methods and data analytics