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The media often shows scientists hard at work in labs, wearing lab coats as they practice science. However, one particular type of research method takes place outside the lab: naturalistic observation.

Introduction to Naturalistic Observation

Have you ever sat around watching people in public as they go about their lives? You could be doing science! Some forms of research require scientists and researchers to see how things function in their natural environment.

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Whether their interests lie in the behavior or people, animals, or other natural occurrences, this often involves getting out of the lab to see these things in their natural setting. This type of research is called naturalistic observation.

Definition of Naturalistic Observation

Naturalistic observation is research that involves studying the subject of interest in its own environment, as it would occur in day-to-day life. Researchers strive to not make changes to the environment, as such changes may influence the outcome of the study.

Since the entire point of this method is to observe things as they occur naturally, such an outcome is not desired.Before we go any further, let’s discuss whether the methodology is qualitative or quantitative. Qualitative research catalogs and studies activities that cannot be broken down into numbers. An example of qualitative methods are interviews wherein a person’s experiences are being examined. Quantitative methods catalog phenomena that can be best represented by numbers, such as chemistry or physics.

Naturalistic observation is very often used for qualitative research, and some researchers take pages and pages of notes about something they observe for only a few seconds in the natural environment. However, naturalistic observation can involve quantitative research as well. For instance, it may be used in the case of measurements that are best made in an environment that cannot be reproduced in a lab. Let’s go over a few specific examples to illustrate how naturalistic observation works.

First Example

The first example involves observing how many people come to a full and complete stop at stop signs. The setup for this observation is simple enough; a researcher observes how long people stop at a stop sign. The researcher tests under two conditions. Half the time, the researcher stands on an adjacent corner and is clearly taking notes, while the rest of the time the researcher is relatively hidden in a nearby building or vehicle.Our first example is a typical sort of task that undergraduate researchers and students in experimental psychology courses are given as an early assignment. The task of recording complete stops is simple enough, and the student will generally note right away that there is a marked difference between the two experimental conditions. When drivers know they are being observed, many more of them will come to a complete stop at the stop sign.

What the student learns early on is that people behave differently when they know they are being observed. Since the basis of naturalistic observation is to try and observe things as they occur naturally, one of the major concerns of researchers has to be observing in such a way that they do not interfere with the natural order of things.

Second Observation

Our second example of naturalistic observation is that of a geologist interested in the chemical contents of water in a particular set of caves. The geologist needs to test the pH of the water and how that acidity of the water is influenced by temperature. This is an example of quantitative measurement through naturalistic observation.

Unlike dealing with people, chemicals do not behave differently when one observes them. However, there are still potential design issues.Contamination is a major concern in both qualitative and quantitative research. Contamination is a change to either the environment or the test results as a consequence of the researcher’s presence. It can come from anything introduced into the mix that is not normally there. What constitutes contamination depends in large part on what is being collected.

For quantitative research, contamination may be a result of chemicals or objects not normally in the environment. One aspect of good research design is that it takes into account ways to keep the setting safe from such issues.

Third Example

Our third and final example is something that is qualitative in nature. The researcher in this case is an anthropologist and the subject of study is worship practices at a variety of local churches.

The anthropologist hopes to make a list of worship practices that include belief expression, audience participation in worship, and church decor. All of these may be observed in their natural environment at worship services. In this case, care must still be taken of contamination, as we’ve already discussed how people may change their behavior when they know they are being observed.Aside from concerns about contamination, our third example brings up a bit of an ethical issue. Most church services are public affairs, and it is likely to be legal to observe these services without any form of notice.

However, some people might not be comfortable with being observed at worship. Therefore, an ethical social scientist will typically inform either the pastor or some other member of the church leadership about their interest in the faith. The pastor may speak with participants, letting them know that a researcher is there. There are additional ethical and legal issues with observing some interactions that are supposed to be private, like a pastor hearing a congregation member’s confession.

Lesson Summary

Naturalistic observation is the research practice of studying human, nonhuman, and nonliving subjects in their natural environments.

Some things are best observed outside of a controlled laboratory facility. This method is used in both qualitative, which catalogues and studies activities that cannot be broken down into numbers, and quantitative research, which catalogues phenomena that can be best represented by numbers.Some methodological issues can arise in this type of research. These issues come from two sources.

The first is the necessity of having as little impact on the environment as possible, since people tend to behave differently when they know they’re being observed. Too much impact on the environment may lead to contamination, which damages both the environment and the results of the study. The second set of issues involves ethical and legal concerns, specifically those that arise from the right of people to know that they are being observed. In most cases, ethical concerns and research needs must be balanced against one another in order to develop the best possible study.

Learning Outcomes

Once you have finished this lesson, you could be prepared to:

  • Discuss the meaning of naturalistic observation and give an example of it
  • Differentiate between qualitative and quantitative research
  • Point out the reason that contamination is a problem in research
  • Give an example of a possible ethical concern involved with naturalistic observation

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