Chapter Summary

This chapter explains how to collect data on political behavior by observing either the behavior itself (direct observation) or some physical trace of the behavior (indirect observation). This method of data collection relies on first-hand examination of activities, behavior, events, or the like, and those whose behavior is being directly or indirectly observed may be unaware that they are being observed.

  • Observation is generally an example of primary data—data recorded and used by the researcher making the observations. Secondary data is data used by a researcher who did not personally collect the data.

The choice of a data collection method depends on many factors including, but not limited to, the validity of the measurements that a particular method will permit, the effect of the data collection itself on the phenomena being measured, the population covered by a data collection method, resources and the cost of a method, the public availability of data, and ethical implications.

First-hand observation includes both qualitative and quantitative methods with deep roots in anthropology, psychology, and sociology in particular. Ethnography is first-hand observation that is generally used to go beyond description of events or actions to reveal the “cultural constructions, in which we live.”

Observations may be classified in at least four different ways: (1) direct or indirect, (2) participant or nonparticipant, (3) overt or covert, and (4) structured or unstructured.

The vast majority of observation studies conducted by political scientists involve direct observation in which the researcher observes actual behavior, with the observation more likely to occur in a natural setting (a field study) than in a laboratory.

  • One advantage of observing people in a natural setting rather than in the artificiality of a laboratory setting is that generally people behave as they would ordinarily. Participant observation offers the advantages of a natural setting, the opportunity to observe people for lengthy periods of time so that interaction and changes in behavior may be studied, and a degree of accuracy or completeness impossible with documents or recall data such as that obtained in surveys.
  • An essential aspect of field study is note taking, because the researcher is relying on remembering events accurately for data. Notes can be divided into three types: mental notes, jotted notes, and field notes.
  • Observation in a laboratory setting allows control over the environment of the observed including a more rigorous experimental design than is possible in a natural, uncontrolled setting and observation may be easier and more convenient to record and preserve. A disadvantage of laboratory observation is that subjects usually know they are being observed and therefore may alter their behavior, raising questions about the validity of the data collected.

Indirect observation, the observation of physical traces of behavior, is essentially a detective work. Inferences based on physical traces can be drawn about people and their behavior.

  • An erosion measure is created by selective wear on some material. For example, campus planners at one university observed paths worn in grassy areas and then rerouted paved walkways to correspond to the most heavily trafficked routes.
  • An accretion measure, which is created by the deposition and accumulation of materials.
  • Erosion and accretion measures may be biased. For example, certain traces are more likely to survive because the materials are more durable.

Ethical concerns arise primarily when there is a potential for harm to the observed. They include (1) negative repercussions from associating with the researcher because of the researcher’s sponsors, nationality, or outsider status; (2) invasion of privacy; (3) stress during the research interaction; and (4) disclosure of behavior or information to the researcher resulting in harm to the observed during or after the study.

Federal regulations require faculty and students to submit research proposals involving human subjects for review to an institutional review board to protect participants from harm.

  • Informed consent means that subjects are to be given information about the research, including the research procedure, its purposes, risks, and anticipated benefits; alternative procedures (where therapy is involved); how subjects are selected; and the person responsible for the research.