Observational Techniques

In marketing and the social sciences, observational research (or field research) is a social research technique that involves the direct observation of phenomena in their natural setting. This differentiates it from experimental research in which a quasi-artificial environment is created to control for spurious factors, and where at least one of the variables is manipulated as part of the experiment.

Observational techniques in context

Compared with quantitative research and experimental research, observational research tends to be less reliable but often more valid[]. The main advantage of observational research is flexibility. The researchers can change their approach as needed. Also it measures behavior directly, not reports of behavior or intentions. The main disadvantage is it is limited to behavioral variables. It cannot be used to study cognitive or affective variables. Another disadvantage is that observational data is not usually general


Generally, there are three types of observational research:

  • Covert observational research - The researchers do not identify themselves. Either they mix in with the subjects undetected, or they observe from a distance. The advantages of this approach are: (1) It is not necessary to get the subjects' cooperation, and (2) The subjects' behaviour will not be contaminated by the presence of the researcher. Some researchers have ethical misgivings with the deceit involved in this approach.
  • Overt observational research - The researchers identify themselves as researchers and explain the purpose of their observations. The problem with this approach is subjects may modify their behaviour when they know they are being watched. They portray their "ideal self" rather than their true self in what is called the Hawthorne Effect. The advantage that the overt approach has over the covert approach is that there is no deception (see PCIA-II; Holigrocki, Kaminski, & Frieswyk, 1999, 2002).
  • Researcher Participation - The researcher participates in what they are observing so as to get a finer appreciation of the phenomena.

In marketing research

In marketing research, the most frequently used types of observational techniques are:

  • Personal observation
  • Mechanical observation
  • Audits
  • Trace Analysis
    • credit card records
    • computer cookie records
    • garbology - looking for traces of purchase patterns in garbage
    • detecting store traffic patterns by observing the wear in the floor (long term) or the dirt on the floor (short term)
    • exposure to advertisements
  • Content analysis
    • observe the content of magazines, television broadcasts, radio broadcasts, or newspapers, either articles, programs, or advertisements

See also

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