Observation as a Research Method

Blog post by Kristin Pinder (senior PWR major)

This semester, my ENG 397: SL Writing as Inquiry class partnered with the Conservators’ Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving threatened species. The Conservators’ Center wanted our class to analyze their current tour program and provide them with tour feedback mechanisms. The project facilitated my thinking about observation as a research method.

As a student working with the Conservators’ Center in determining a feedback form for their tour program, I personally observed five tours. Our class observed fourteen total tours including private tours, public tours, enrichment tours, and specialty tours. Our role as observers was to record interactions and behaviors as effectively as possible.

While my peers and I were coding our acquired observation data, we started to think about the objectivity of coding. Did the themes we identify mean the same to others? Would someone else’s interpretation of the data have been different? Did everyone in our class understand how each trend was defined? The process of coding our observations seemed subjective.

Despite its subjectivity, the data we received from our observations was helpful. Another aspect of our research was our post-tour survey, covering everything from fundraising messages to interaction with animals. When we began to compile our survey data, we were initially overwhelmed with the data coding process. Our observations became a way of coding our survey data; because we were able to spot trends in our observation data, we were able to identify themes in our survey data.

Observation allowed my Writing as Inquiry class to find tendencies in data we wouldn’t have been able to find otherwise. However, as I went on tour after tour, I realized I couldn’t be as effective as an observer because I couldn’t see beyond what I already had seen. Every tour was repetitive, and I found myself focusing on the similarities between tours. This made me wonder about observer bias in research—the Conservator’s Center wanted our class to observe its tours because it would be biased, but what happens when our class becomes biased?

How can we effectively eliminate the observer bias in our research?

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