The scientific method provides a framework for researchers seeking to better understand observed phenomenon. Researchers rely heavily on observation at the beginning of their research when choosing an area of inquiry and toward the end when reporting findings with words or numbers. Scientists in laboratories conduct controlled experiments to test a hypothesis formulated from objective observations of previous studies. Social scientists subjectively observe groups of people or naturally occurring events to develop a hypothesis grounded in their observations.

Objective Observation

Scientists strive for objectivity in their observations to bolster the validity and reliability of the findings. Observational techniques involve carefully measuring, weighing, calculating and calibrating to ensure that all predetermined steps of the experiment are exactly followed. Variables are tightly controlled to support researcher confidence in the results. Observations are quantified with statistical calculations, graphs and spreadsheets. Experimenter bias can impact the study adversely and limit generalization about the observed results to a larger population.

Subjective Observation

Social scientists use subjective observational techniques to probe for information that may not be obtainable through lab tests or survey instruments. For example, researchers studying adjustment issues of combat veterans might organize a focus group to observe and interview returning soldiers. Social scientists recognize that researchers’ own beliefs and past experiences may influence their observations and interpretation of data. Researchers acknowledge this potential for bias when reporting results based on personal observations.

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Controlled Observation

The scientific method often is associated with formal observations and experiments designed by scientists in highly regulated research facilities. Scientists start with an observation about a phenomenon and develop a hypothesis about possible causes. Experimental tests are conducted to test the hypothesis. Observations are made about the results, and then conclusions are drawn. If the results support the hypothesis, the findings can be useful in predicting new observations or hypotheses that may support or debunk an existing theory.

Naturalistic Observation

Social scientists rely heavily on observation techniques for collecting data in natural settings. Examples include observing children at home or in classrooms, or conducting in-depth interviews of employees in the workplace. In some situations, researchers immerse themselves into the setting as a direct participant. Observational impressions are used to develop a rich narrative of the beliefs, feelings and norms of the individual, group or case being studied. Observations lead to a hypothesis that may explain the phenomenon studied.

About the Author

Dr. Mary Dowd is a dean of students who holds a doctorate in educational leadership from Minnesota State University. Dr. Dowd has also led many administrative offices such as affirmative action, women’s center and student conduct. She enjoys teaching, writing and advising students on how to succeed in college. Dr. Dowd's literary accomplishments include published research, training materials and hundreds of practical online articles. Her writing reflects years of professional and personal life experience. As a parent of two adult children with master's degrees, Dr. Dowd authentically understands the many challenges, milestones and decisions that parents and their college age students face from admission to graduation.