Primary sources - Observations


An observation involves gathering information visually, and is not necessarily dependent on verbal content. Observations are valuable for understanding behaviour, and for recognising the degree of mastery of practical skills and how people interact with each other and their environment and events as they happen. Observations can be made in ‘live’ situations or from recorded visual media. Consent is always required from the participants who are being observed and, for good practice, from the organisation on whose property the observation is being made. Observations made in public spaces may not need consent, on the grounds that anyone can observe others as a passerby.

Recording events and activities (e.g. on mobile phones or video cameras) for research purposes would also require explicit consent from participants.

If the observer is actively engaged in the event or activity being observed, then they are a participant observer. For example, a care worker might be stimulating an individual with profound and multiple learning needs to respond to various stimuli by moving objects, talking and otherwise interacting with the individual and at the same time making a record of the individual’s reactions. Alternatively, if another care worker was observing the interaction between the carer and the disabled individual and noting the responses, this care worker would be a non-participant observer because they would not be involved in the interaction between the two people and would be observing it as an outsider.

Formal observations

Formal observations can provide specific information for a research project. A formal observation is a planned event in which the observer watches a specific activity for a period of time and makes a record of what goes on during that time.

Techniques for making formal observations include narrative, time sampling, checklists, event sampling and sociograms. The observation may be documented on a specific form but should always record the date, time, duration and context of the observation. In childcare, observations are a routine aspect of the early years practitioner’s work and information from observations helps the practitioner plan activities to promote the development needs of the children in their care.

Formal observations are not limited to observations of individuals. They may involve observations of staff and of the environment. A health and safety audit is a form of routine research that involves close examination of equipment, décor and furniture to see that it is still in a good state of repair and not a risk to people. The health and safety officer might use a checklist to record what has been observed and note any signs of wear and tear that might be a danger.

Informal observations

Informal observation is an important aspect of all care. Carers should always be watchful of the individuals they care for. In this context, an informal observation could simply mean noticing changes from normal patterns. For instance, a person might be uncharacteristically aggressive, or quiet and not participating in a group activity, or look pale and unwell. Informal observations are often the only means of gathering information about unplanned events or incidents (e.g. a violent outburst or a patient collapsing). Informal observations may have a place in a research, and they have greater validity if the person making the observation is a health or social care professional.


Research may be based on changes to the values of measurements. For example, a study exploring levels of stress experienced by individuals may involve measuring their blood pressure and possibly pulse rate. Measurements usually generate quantitative data.


Produce a table outlining the strengths and weaknesses of using observations to gather data. Include examples of when you should or shouldn't use observations to gather information in different research areas.

Last modified: Monday, 30 Mar 2020, 14:18