develop a  research proposal

Develop a Research Proposal


Writing the Proposal - Data Collection Observations


Observation involves recording the behavioral patterns of people, objects and events in a systematic manner. Observational methods may be:

  • structured or unstructured
  • disguised or undisguised
  • natural or contrived
  • personal
  • mechanical
  • non-participant
  • participant, with the participant taking a number of different roles.

Structured or unstructured

In structured observation, the researcher specifies in detail what is to be observed and how the measurements are to be recorded. It is appropriate when the problem is clearly defined and the information needed is specified.

In unstructured observation, the researcher monitors all aspects of the phenomenon that seem relevant. It is appropriate when the problem has yet to be formulated precisely and flexibility is needed in observation to identify key components of the problem and to develop hypotheses. The potential for bias is high. Observation findings should be treated as hypotheses to be tested rather than as conclusive findings.

Disguised or undisguised

In disguised observation, respondents are unaware they are being observed and thus behave naturally. Disguise is achieved, for example, by hiding, or using hidden equipment or people disguised as shoppers.

In undisguised observation, respondents are aware they are being observed. There is a danger of the Hawthorne effect – people behave differently when being observed.

Natural or contrived

Natural observation involves observing behavior as it takes place in the environment, for example, eating hamburgers in a fast food outlet.

In contrived observation, the respondents’ behavior is observed in an artificial environment, for example, a food tasting session.


In personal observation, a researcher observes actual behavior as it occurs. The observer may or may not normally attempt to control or manipulate the phenomenon being observed. The observer merely records what takes place.


Mechanical devices (video, closed circuit television) record what is being observed. These devices may or may not require the respondent’s direct participation. They are used for continuously recording on-going behavior.


The observer does not normally question or communicate with the people being observed. He or she does not participate.


In participant observation, the researcher becomes, or is, part of the group that is being investigated. Participant observation has its roots in ethnographic studies (study of man and races) where researchers would live in tribal villages, attempting to understand the customs and practices of that culture. It has a very extensive literature, particularly in sociology (development, nature and laws of human society) and anthropology (physiological and psychological study of man). Organizations can be viewed as ‘tribes’ with their own customs and practices.

The role of the participant observer is not simple. There are different ways of classifying the role:

  • Researcher as employee.
  • Researcher as an explicit role.
  • Interrupted involvement.
  • Observation alone.

Researcher as employee

The researcher works within the organization alongside other employees, effectively as one of them. The role of the researcher may or may not be explicit and this will have implications for the extent to which he or she will be able to move around and gather information and perspectives from other sources. This role is appropriate when the researcher needs to become totally immersed and experience the work or situation at first hand.

There are a number of dilemmas. Do you tell management and the unions? Friendships may compromise the research. What are the ethics of the process? Can anonymity be maintained? Skill and competence to undertake the work may be required. The research may be over a long period of time.

Researcher as an explicit role

The researcher is present every day over a period of time, but entry is negotiated in advance with management and preferably with employees as well. The individual is quite clearly in the role of a researcher who can move around, observe, interview and participate in the work as appropriate. This type of role is the most favored, as it provides many of the insights that the complete observer would gain, whilst offering much greater flexibility without the ethical problems that deception entails.

Interrupted involvement

The researcher is present sporadically over a period of time, for example, moving in and out of the organization to deal with other work or to conduct interviews with, or observations of, different people across a number of different organizations. It rarely involves much participation in the work.

Observation alone

The observer role is often disliked by employees since it appears to be ‘eavesdropping’. The inevitable detachment prevents the degree of trust and friendship forming between the researcher and respondent, which is an important component in other methods.

Choice of roles

The role adopted depends on the following:

  • Purpose of the research: Does the research require continued longitudinal involvement (long period of time), or will in-depth interviews, for example, conducted over time give the type of insights required?
  • Cost of the research: To what extent can the researcher afford to be committed for extended periods of time? Are there additional costs such as training?
  • The extent to which access can be gained: Gaining access where the role of the researcher is either explicit or covert can be difficult, and may take time.
  • The extent to which the researcher would be comfortable in the role: If the researcher intends to keep his identity concealed, will he or she also feel able to develop the type of trusting relationships that are important? What are the ethical issues?
  • The amount of time the researcher has at his disposal: Some methods involve a considerable amount of time. If time is a problem alternate approaches will have to be sought. 

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