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The assignment: Observation Instrument and Observer InstructionsPRESUME that you will be performing a research project on your topic and problem. You need accurate, valid, and reliable observations from a sample obtained from multiple sites by many co-investigators.You will need to craft an ‘instrument’ or ‘tool’ to facilitate the observations of most interest to your study, and an accompanying training program for those surrogate /co-investigator.Your goal is to assure inter-observer reliability, as well as overall reliability and validity of the observations.Craft your instrument and instructions, and submit them.My topic is in this assignment… and…Focus:Disaster related research is still relatively new, and understanding what really occurs in impact, response, recovery is critical to planning mitigation and preparation as well. Often, events unfold in such a manner as to defy total recall.Surveys can be constructed to get a subject’s response (truthful or not) to a question or attempt to establish their state of knowledge; how do you record behavior (what they DO)? The answer comes as field research. Moving into the field and recording ‘observations’. A hallmark of qualitative research methods.Decide on a set of representative behaviors you wish to observe. Craft a ‘check sheet’ or ‘behavior recording tool’ for use by your colleagues, with “exemplar’s” of what you mean by each behavioral attribute.Finally, establish how YOU as the Principal Investigator (PI) will ‘code’ the behaviors in a such a way as to derive meaning from the observations.Recommended Readings in the attachments and also this link


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Interviews are a primary source of data in qualitative research; so
too are observations. Observations are common in many types
of qualitative research, such as in case studies, ethnographies, and
qualitative action research studies. Observations are especially
important in ethnographic studies.
Observations can be distinguished from interviews in two ways.
First, observations take place in the setting where the phenomenon
of interest naturally occurs rather than a location designated for
the purpose of interviewing; second, observational data represent a
firsthand encounter with the phenomenon of interest rather than a
secondhand account of the world obtained in an interview. In the
real world of collecting data, however, informal interviews and
conversations are often interwoven with observation. The terms
fieldwork and field study usually connote both activities (observation
and informal interviews) and may also include the study of documents and artifacts. That caveat notwithstanding, the primary focus
of this chapter is on the activity of observation—the use of observation as a research tool, the problem of what to observe, the
relationship between observer and observed, and the means for
recording observations. We also discuss the whole phenomenon of
online observation, given that we now have the ability to observe at
a distance through online and various virtual technologies.
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Being alive renders us natural observers of our everyday world and
our behavior in it. What we learn helps us make sense of our world
and guides our future actions. Most of this observation is routine—
largely unconscious and unsystematic. It is part of living, part of our
commonsense interaction with the world. But just as casually
conversing with someone differs from interviewing, so too does
this routine observation differ from research observation. Observation is a research tool when it is systematic, when it addresses a
specific research question, and when it is subject to the checks and
balances in producing trustworthy results.
Critics of participant observation as a data-gathering technique point to the highly subjective and therefore unreliable
nature of human perception. Human perception is also very
selective. Consider a traffic accident at a busy intersection.
From each different witness to the accident there will be a
different, perhaps even contradictory, account of what happened.
However, the witnesses were not planning to systematically
observe the accident, nor were they trained in observational
techniques. These factors differentiate everyday observation
from research-related observation. Patton (2015) contends that
comparing untrained observers with researchers is like comparing what “an amateur community talent show” can do compared
with “professional performers” (p. 331). Training and mental
preparation is as important in becoming a good observer as it is in
becoming a good interviewer. Wolcott (1992) also notes that the
difference between “mere mortals” and qualitative researchers is
that “qualitative researchers, like others whose roles demand
selective attentiveness—artists and novelists, detectives and spies,
guards and thieves, to name a few—pay special attention to a few
things to which others ordinarily give only passing attention.
Observers of any ilk do no more: We all attend to certain things,
and nobody attends to them all” (pp. 22–23).
Just as you can learn to be a skilled interviewer, you can also
learn to be a careful, systematic observer. Training to be a skilled
observer includes “learning to pay attention,” learning how to write
“descriptively,” practicing the disciplined recording of field notes,
“knowing how to separate detail from trivia . . . and using systematic
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methods to validate and triangulate observations” (Patton, 2015,
p. 331). You can practice observing in any number of ways—by
being a complete observer in a public place, by being a participant observer in your work or social settings, or by watching films
or videotapes. You can also apprentice yourself to an experienced field researcher, comparing his or her observations with
yours. You might also read other people’s accounts of the
An investigator might want to gather data through observation
for many reasons. As an outsider an observer will notice things that
have become routine to the participants themselves, things that
may lead to understanding the context. Observations are also
conducted to triangulate emerging findings; that is, they are
used in conjunction with interviewing and document analysis to
substantiate the findings (see Chapter Nine). The participant
observer sees things firsthand and uses his or her own knowledge
and expertise in interpreting what is observed rather than relying
on once-removed accounts from interviews. Observation makes it
possible to record behavior as it is happening.
Another reason to conduct observations is to provide some
knowledge of the context or to provide specific incidents, behaviors, and so on that can be used as reference points for subsequent
interviews. This is a particularly helpful strategy for understanding
ill-defined phenomena. For example, in a study of respiratory
therapists’ critical thinking, Mishoe (1995) observed therapists
as they worked in the clinical setting, and shortly thereafter she
interviewed them. She was thus able to ask them what they were
thinking with regard to specific behaviors she had witnessed on site.
As an aside, this type of interview is sometimes called “anchored
interviewing,” as the interview questions are “anchored” to what
was observed.
Finally, people may not feel free to talk about or may not want
to discuss all topics. In studying a small educational unit, for
example, the researcher might observe dissension and strife among
certain staff members that an interview would not reveal. Observation is the best technique to use when an activity, event, or situation
can be observed firsthand, when a fresh perspective is desired,
or when participants are not able or willing to discuss the topic
under study.
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What to observe is determined by several factors. The most
important is the researcher’s purpose in conducting the study
in the first place. In other words, the theoretical framework, the
problem, and the questions of interest determine what is to be
observed. As we noted in Chapter Four, a researcher’s disciplinary
orientation often determines how a problem is defined. An
educator might observe a school because of an interest in how
students learn, whereas a sociologist might visit the same school
because of an interest in social institutions. Practical considerations also play a part in determining what to observe. Certain
behavior is difficult to observe; further, a researcher must have the
time, money, and energy to devote to observation and must be
allowed to observe by those in the situation of interest. Observers
need to be open to early impressions and feelings about what is
going on in a setting because it is these early impressions that help
determine subsequent patterns of observation. Schensul and
LeCompte (2013) write that researchers’ curiosity will drive
what they initially observe, and that over time “with repeated
observation and questioning, the meanings of items, articles,
patterns of behavior, and social relationships and events will
become clearer” (p. 91).
What to observe is partly a function of how structured the
observer wants to be. Just as there is a range of structure in
interviewing, there is also a range of structure in observation.
The researcher can decide ahead of time to concentrate on
observing certain events, behaviors, or persons. A code sheet might
be used to record instances of specified behavior. Less-structured
observations can be compared to a television camera scanning the
area. Where to begin looking depends on the research question,
but where to focus or stop action cannot be determined ahead of
time. The focus must be allowed to emerge and in fact may change
over the course of the study.
Nevertheless, no one can observe everything, and the
researcher must start somewhere. Several writers present
lists of things to observe, at least to get started in the activity.
Here is a checklist of elements likely to be present in any
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1. The physical setting: What is the physical environment like?
What is the context? What kinds of behavior is the setting
designed for? How is space allocated? What objects, resources,
technologies are in the setting? The principal’s office, the
school bus, the cafeteria, and the classroom vary in physical
attributes as well as in the anticipated behaviors.
2. The participants: Describe who is in the scene, how many people, and their roles. What brings these people together? Who
is allowed here? Who is not here that you would expect to be
here? What are the relevant characteristics of the participants?
Further, what are the ways in which the people in this setting
organize themselves? “Patterns and frequency of interactions,
the direction of communication patterns . . . and changes in
these patterns tell us things about the social environment”
(Patton, 2015, p. 367).
3. Activities and interactions: What is going on? Is there a definable
sequence of activities? How do the people interact with the
activity and with one another? How are people and activities
connected? What norms or rules structure the activities and
interactions? When did the activity begin? How long does it
last? Is it a typical activity, or unusual?
4. Conversation: What is the content of conversations in this setting? Who speaks to whom? Who listens? Quote directly, paraphrase, and summarize conversations. If possible, use a tape
recorder to back up your note-taking. Note silences and nonverbal behavior that add meaning to the exchange.
5. Subtle factors: Less obvious but perhaps as important to the
observation are
Informal and unplanned activities
Symbolic and connotative meanings of words
Nonverbal communication such as dress and physical space
Unobtrusive measures such as physical clues
“What does not happen” . . . especially if “certain things
ought to happen or are expected to happen” (Patton, 2015,
p. 379, emphasis in original)
6. Your own behavior: You are as much a part of the scene as participants. How is your role, whether as an observer or an intimate participant, affecting the scene you are observing? What
do you say and do? In addition, what thoughts are you having
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about what is going on? These become “observer comments,”
an important part of field notes.
Each participant observation experience has its own rhythm
and flow. The duration of a single observation or the total amount
of time spent collecting data in this way is a function of the problem
being investigated. There is no ideal amount of time to spend
observing, nor is there one preferred pattern of observation. For
some situations, observation over an extended period may be most
appropriate; for others, shorter periodic observations make the
most sense, given the purpose of the study and practical constraints. Most writers do recommend that when learning to do
field work, sessions of an hour or less are recommended. Observations take enormous energy and concentration. Further, it is
recommended that you allow for writing up your field notes as
soon after the observation as possible.
The process of collecting data through observations can be
broken into the three stages: entry, data collection, and exit.
Gaining entry into a site begins with gaining the confidence and
permission of those who can approve the activity. This step is more
easily accomplished through a mutual contact who can recommend the researcher to the “gatekeepers” involved. Even with an
advocate working on your behalf, it may be difficult to gain entry to
certain settings. In our experience, it is difficult for an outsider to
gain entry to business and industry, some government agencies,
and some groups because of the sensitivity or exclusivity of their
mission (such as self-help groups, racial and ethnic groups, and so
forth). Bogdan and Biklen (2011) point out that most groups will
want answers to the following:

What are you actually going to do?
Will you be disruptive?
What are you going to do with your findings?
Why us? Why have “they or their organizations” been “singled
out for study”? (p. 88)
What will we get out of this? (pp. 87–88)
You will increase your chances of gaining entry by being prepared to answer these questions as candidly as possible, being
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persistent, and being able to adjust to modifications in your
original request. Once you have gained entry, the following comments by Bogdan and Biklen (2011) can aid you in your first few
days in the field:
“Do not take what happens in the field personally” (p. 91).
Have someone on site introduce you.
Keep the first observations fairly short to avoid becoming
overwhelmed with the novelty of the situation.
Be relatively passive and unobtrusive, put people at ease, learn
how to act and dress in the setting.
Be friendly and honest but not overly technical or detailed in
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explaining what you are doing.
They also suggest that the researcher establish rapport by
fitting into the participants’ routines, finding some common
ground with them, helping out on occasion, being friendly, and
showing interest in the activity.
Once you (the researcher) become familiar with the setting
and begin to see what is there to observe, serious data collection
can begin. There is little glamour and much hard work in this
phase of research. It takes great concentration to observe intently,
remember as much as possible, and then record in as much detail
as possible what has been observed. Conducting an observation,
even a short one, can be exhausting, especially in the beginning of
a study. Everyone and everything is new; you do not know what will
be important, so you try to observe everything; you are concerned
about the effect you will have on the scene; you miss things while
taking notes; and so on. It is probably best to do more frequent,
shorter observations at first. The more familiar everything feels and
the more comfortable you are in the setting, the longer you will be
able to observe.
The overall time spent on the site, the number of visits, and the
number of observations made per visit cannot be precisely determined ahead of time. At some point, time and money will run out,
and new information will be scarce. Ideally, depletion of resources
coincides with saturation of information. Leaving the field, however,
may be even more difficult than gaining entry. Relationships have
been formed, habitual patterns established with regard to the site,
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and so on. Patton (2015, p. 405) recommends thinking through
“an exit or disengagement strategy.” Bogdan and Biklen (2011,
p. 116) suggest that “rather than abruptly ending this phase of . . .
research, . . . ease out of the field by coming less frequently and
then eventually stopping altogether.” In any case, “all field workers,
novices and the more experienced, still worry about whether they got
it all and got it right. No one gets it all, of course. But researchers ask
themselves whether they have captured the range and the variation
of patterns relevant to their topics” (Preissle & Grant, 2004, p. 180).
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The researcher can assume one of several stances while collecting
information as an observer; stances range from being a full participant—the investigator is a member of the group being observed—
to being a spectator. Gold’s (1958) classic typology offers a spectrum of four possible stances:
1. Complete participant: The researcher is a member of the group
being studied and conceals his or her observer role from the
group so as not to disrupt the natural activity of the group.
The inside information obtainable by using this method must
be weighed against the possible disadvantages—loss of perspective on the group, being labeled a spy or traitor when
research activities are revealed, and the questionable ethics of
deceiving the other participants.
2. Participant as observer: The researcher’s observer activities,
which are known to the group, are subordinate to the
researcher’s role as a participant. Schensul and LeCompte
(2013) refer to this as “a data-collection technique that
requires the researcher to be present at, involved in, and actually recording the routine daily activities with people in the
field setting” (p. 83), while maintaining an active participant
role. The trade-off here is between the depth of the information revealed to the researcher and the level of confidentiality
promised to the group in order to obtain this information.
3. Observer as participant: The researcher’s observer activities are
known to the group; participation in the group is definitely
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secondary to the role of information gatherer. Using this
method, the researcher may have access to many people
and a wide range of information, but the level of the information revealed is controlled by the group members being
investigated. Adler and Adler (1998) refer to this as a “peripheral membership role,” which is different from having an
active membership role. Here researchers “observe and interact closely enough with members to establish an insider’s
identity without participating in those activities constituting
the core of group membership” (p. 85).
4. Complete observer: The researcher is either hidden from the
group (for example, behind a one-way mirror) or in a completely public setting such as an airport or library.
More recent work has defined yet another possible stance of
the researcher vis-à-vis participants—that of the collaborative partner.
This role is closest to being a complete participant on the continuum just detailed, but the investigator’s identity is clearly known to
everyone involved. Although defined variously within the areas of
teacher research, feminist research, or action and participatory
research, the defining characteristic of this stance is that the
investigator and the participants are equal partners in the research
process—including defining the problem to be studied, collecting
and analyzing data, and writing and disseminating the findings.
(For further discussion of this role see Cranton & Merriam, 2015;
Herr & Anderson, 2015.)
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