You’re being watched. Observation methods in social research and evaluation

SpyObservation is a systematic process of recording the behavioural patterns of people, objects and occurrences without questioning or otherwise communicating with them. It’s a bit like professional stalking, but with ethical and design limitations. The technique can be used as a tool for scientific enquiry when it serves a specific research purpose, is planned and recorded systematically, and is subject to checks or controls on validity and reliability.

Few social or market research methods rely solely on observation methods to gather primary data. This implies that observational methods have some major disadvantages compared with other methods of gathering data and information. Yet, observation methods offer some advantages, as long as they are used in the right context.

Relative advantages of observation

The greatest advantage of observations methods is that they allow for the measurement of actual behaviour rather than reports of intended behaviour or preferred behaviour. There is no reporting bias, nor is there bias caused by the interviewer and the interviewing process. Observational techniques include the viewing of behaviour patterns that the respondent is unaware of or is unable to communicate. For example, the way in which visitors to museums of galleries interact with signage or pathways is best obtained by observing them move throughout the space. If the observed phenomenon occurs frequently or is of short duration, observational methods may cost less and be faster than survey methods. For example, observing how patrons interact with ushers as they enter a concert hall. We used visitor observations in our research that fed into the preparation of a Master Plan for the National Capital Exhibition, Canberra.

Relative disadvantage of observation

The greatest disadvantage of observation is that the technique does not necessarily reveal the reasons for the observed behaviour, motives, beliefs, attitudes or preferences. For example, it may not be known why a visitor to a gallery decides to take a particular route around an exhibition. Additionally, observational data is often time consuming and expensive. In some cases, the use of observational methods can be unethical, if people are being monitored without their consent.

Ethical issues in the observation of people

Observation methods introduce a number of ethical issues. Hidden observation raises the issue of the respondent’s right to privacy. Visitors to a museum or gallery may be seeking out solitude on their visit. To observe their behaviour requires a researcher to follow on their heels at a given distance which may impinge on their privacy. Some people may see contrived observation as entrapment. To entrap means to trick someone into a particular situation, to observe their response. The difficulty of using observations methods in social research requires balancing values.


Observation has the potential to provide valuable information to feed into a market research or evaluation project, but only when properly used. Systems should be put in place to ensure the observational methods are carried out methodically and with purpose. Findings sheets should be designed to enable the recording of behaviour, as well as some demographic characteristics of people being viewed, such as whether they are in groups, alone, with children, and their approximate age, if necessary.

It is often best to use observation to supplement other survey methods, rather than simply as a substitute approach.

Back to All Posts