Psychology in the 21st century
Psychology in the 21st century

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Psychology in the 21st century

3.4 Observations

Observations are the most direct method of getting information about people's behaviour. In everyday life we all frequently observe other people. Psychologists have devised a range of methods for systematically observing other people. These range from participant observation through to highly structured and targeted observations. In participant observation, the researcher is part of what is being observed and writes up notes whenever possible. Sometimes these notes include an insider viewpoint account of how the researcher is feeling. A well-known example is that of Rosenhan and seven collaborators in the 1970s who, although not ill, feigned mental illness and managed to get themselves admitted to a psychiatric hospital (Rosenhan, 1973). Once in the hospital they behaved ‘normally’, i.e. as they would in the outside world. They kept notes of all they observed (outsider viewpoint) and what they experienced (insider viewpoint), including the experience of having their ‘normal’ behaviour and talk interpreted as evidence of their mental illness. (They had a lot of trouble getting discharged from the hospital.) The data from observations such as these are analysed qualitatively, paying attention to meanings and to the place of the researcher in the observation.

In more structured observations, researchers may have clear categories of behaviour on which they know they want to focus. They may choose a specific individual such as a target child in a school, perhaps counting the number of times that child makes a friendly approach to another child and noting down what is said. They may also observe through a one-way mirror so that they are not visible to the people being observed and, hence, do not interfere with whatever is being observed. These kinds of observations can be analysed either quantitatively and statistically, or qualitatively.

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