Considerations in Observational Research (HL)

tdixon Qualitative Research Methods Leave a Comment

As part of the HL unit on qualitative methods for paper 3, you need to know about observation methods. Moreover, you need to know and understand possible factors that researchers might need to consider in the setting up and carrying out the observation.

Here is the learning outcome for this topic:

Discuss considerations involved in setting up and carrying out an observation (for example, audience effect, Hawthorne effect, disclosure).

EXAM TIP: To get top marks in a Paper 3 answer you need to be able to explain how and/or why certain factors need to be considered in the example of research provided in the stimulus.

Here are some of the considerations:

  • Choice of observation method
  • Audience Effect/Hawthorne Effect
  • Disclosure
  • Ethics (e.g. retrospective consent, anonymity, confidentiality, etc.)
  • Participant Expectancy
  • Researcher Expectancy
  • Researcher Bias
  • Reflexivity
  • Triangulation (researcher, methodological)

Choice of Observation Method: One of the first and most important things researchers need to consider is what type of observation they are going to conduct (e.g. covert, naturalistic, non-participant, etc.). The type of observation will influence the other factors they need to consider.

Audience Effect: this is when people get nervous about doing an activity while others are watching. This is also a factor that influences bystanderism (some people are reluctant to help in case they make a mistake while others are watching). An interesting example of audience effects is how children display more pain when parents are in the room during medical examinations. The audience effect may or may not be a factor depending on the type of observation method (covert, overt, etc). 

Hawthorne Effect: is when participants change their behaviour based on the simple fact that they are being observed.*

Disclosure: is revealing information to someone. In observations, it refers to informed consent and debriefing. However, disclosing (i.e. revealing) too much information to a participant before the observation begins regarding the aims and the behaviours being observed can impact the validity of the results. Similarly, debriefing needs to occur, but if the study is a covert observation, revealing too much may cause emotional or psychological damage to the participants. For example, if a participant is being observed in a playground while they discipline their child, they may suffer from embarrassment or worse because a research has observed and recorded them being violent with their child. The consideration here is how much information should be disclosed by the researcher. Too much can influence the validity of the results, while too little impacts the ethicality of the study.  

Participant Expectancy: This is an effect that occurs when participants change their behaviour based on how they think they’re expected to act.

Researcher Expectancy: This is when what the researcher expects to happen or expects to observe in a study will have an influence on the results.

Researcher Bias: researcher bias may influence the results of an observation in two major ways. One way is that the researchers will be biased in identifying the particular behaviours they want to observe. Another way in which they may be biased is in their recording of behaviours. This is why triangulation and reflexivity are important.

Reflexivity: this should be an on-going process during the observation to reduce the possibility of bias.

Retrospective consent: this applies to covert observations and is the process of getting consent to use data gathered during a covert observation. Retrospective means looking back on, so it’s getting consent after the study; informed consent is getting before the study.

Researcher triangulation: to reduce the possibility of bias, it is often useful to have more than one researcher conducting the observation. This is researcher triangulation.

* A note on audience effect and Hawthorne effect: I asked a question on the IB Teachers forum (OCC) about the distinction between these two as they’re both stated in the learning outcome but for me the difference between the two is so very subtle that it’s almost indistinguishable. I did not get an answer about the difference, and instead was informed (thanks, Laura!) that even in the past examiner reports have stated that students should not use terms such as the Hawthorne effect in Paper 3 answers because it’s from quantitative research! Even though it’s stated in the learning outcome! This is just one more reason why I try not to worry about what examiners might think but choose the subject matter and adapt my teaching for what I think is important for students to understand. But if your students use these terms interchangeably, I think that is OK. 

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