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Qualitative study design



A way to gather data by watching people, events, or noting physical characteristics in their natural setting. Seeks to answer the question: “What is going on here?”.  While rooted in ethnographic research it can be applied to other methodologies. Observations may often be supplemented with interviews.


There are three main categories:

    Participant observation  

  •     Researcher becomes a participant in the culture or context being observed.
  •     Requires researcher to be accepted as part of culture being observed in order for success

    Direct Observation

  •     Researcher strives to be as unobtrusive as possible so as not to bias the observations; must remain detached.
  •     Technology can be useful (i.e. video, audio recording).

    Indirect Observation

  •     Results of an interaction, process or behaviour are observed (for example, measuring the amount of plate waste left by students in a school cafeteria to determine whether a new food is acceptable to them).

Observations may be unstructured, semi-structured or structured.  The latter two involve the use of an observation template that includes prompting questions such as: “What are people doing?”; “What are they trying to accomplish?”; How are they doing this?” etc.

What form does observation take?

    Field notes; audio and video recordings.


strengths Strengths

  • Allows for insight into contexts, relationships, and behaviours;
  • Can provide information previously unknown to researchers that is crucial for project design, data collection, and interpretation of other data. 


limitations Limitations

  • Not suited to all research inquiries since not all phenomena can be observed.
  • Time-consuming.
  • Documentation relies on memory, personal discipline, and diligence of researcher.
  • Requires conscious effort at objectivity because method is inherently subjective.
  • Critics maintain that different observers will make different observations of the same phenomena so that no single account can be held up as the source of truth. 


iconExample questions

  • How do members of operating theatres communicate with each other?
  • How do nurses interact with their patients when administering medication?
  • How do parents deal with their adolescent children who suffer chronic pain?


iconExample studies