Observational data are attractive as they afford the researcher the opportunity to gather ‘live’ data from ‘live’ situations. The researcher is given the opportunity to look at what is taking place in situ
rather than at second hand (Patton, 1990:203-5). This enables researchers to understand the context of programmes, to be open-ended and inductive, to see things that might otherwise be unconsciously missed, to discover things that participants might not freely talk about in interview situations, to move beyond perception-based data (e.g. opinions in interviews), and to access personal knowledge. Because observed incidents are less predictable there is a certain freshness to this form of data collection that is often denied in other forms, e.g. a questionnaire or a test. Observations, it is argued (Morrison, 1993:80), enable the researcher to gather data on:
|• the physical setting (e.g. the physical environment and its organization); |
|• the human setting (e.g. the organization of people, the characteristics and make up of the groups or individuals being observed, for instance gender, class); |
|• the interactional setting (e.g. the interactions that are taking place, formal, informal, planned, unplanned, verbal, non-verbal etc.); |
|• the programme setting (e.g. the resources and their organization, pedagogic styles, curricula and their organization). |
Patton (1990:202) suggests that observational data should enable the researcher to enter and understand the situation that is being described. The kind of observations available to the researcher lie on a continuum from unstructured to structured, responsive to pre-ordinate. A highly structured observation will know in advance what it is looking for (i.e. pre-ordinate observation) and will have its observation categories worked out in advance. A semi-structured observation will have an agenda of issues but will gather data to illuminate these issues in a far less pre-determined or systematic manner. An unstructured observation will be far less clear on what it is looking for and will therefore have to go into a situation and observe what is taking place before deciding on its significance for the research. In a nutshell, a structured observation will already have its hypotheses decided and will use the observational data to conform or refute these hypotheses. On the other hand, a semi-structured and, more particularly, an unstructured observation, will be hypothesis-generating rather than hypothesis-testing. The semi-structured and unstructured observations will review observational data before suggesting an explanation for the phenomena being observed.
Though it is possible to argue that all research is some form of participant observation since we cannot study the world without being part of it (Adler and Adler, 1994), nevertheless Gold (1958) offers a well-known classification of researcher roles in observation, that lie on a continuum. At one end is the complete participant, moving to the participant-as-observer, thence to the observer-as-participant, and finally to the complete observer. The move is from complete participation to complete detachment. The mid-points of this continuum strive to balance involvement with detachment, closeness with