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Qualitative Methods

3. Observation

Surveys and demographic studies achieve precise measurement at the potential cost of full understanding of how their variables relate to what actually happens in the field. Observational studies seek to gather in-depth understanding in situ of behaviour in medical settings, as shown in Table 2.

Table 2

Aims of Observational Research

Approach Aim
Seeing through the eyes of... Viewing events, actions, norms, values, etc. from the perspective of the people being studied.
Description Attending to mundane detail ... to help us to understand what is going on in a particular context and to provide clues and pointers to other layers of reality.
Contextualism The basic message that qualitative researchers convey is that whatever the sphere in which the data are being collected, we can understand events only when they are situated in the wider social and historical context.
Process Viewing social life as involving interlocking series of events.
Flexible research designs Qualitative researchers' adherence to viewing social phenomena through the eyes of their subjects has led to a wariness regarding the imposition of prior and possibly inappropriate frames of reference on the people they study. This leads to a preference for an open and unstructured research design which increases the possibility of coming across unexpected issues.
Avoiding early use of theories and concepts: Rejecting premature attempts to impose theories and concepts which may exhibit a poor fit with participants' perspectives.

Source: Adapted from Bryman (1998: 61-66)

Bryman, A. (1988) Quantity and quality in social research, London: Unwin Hyman.