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Human beings are economical with regards to mental resources. We do not think about things we do not have to think about, or things we do not want to think about. This is why we are not conscious of a lot of those small actions we take everyday, and because of this an interview or a research survey can fail.

If the respondent is not conscious of his or her behaviour with regards to the subject of the enquiry the interview will not result in any new insights or knowledge, and the results become superficial and obvious or in worst case misleading. In this respect participant observation comes to the rescue.

With observational surveys we can — with or without the active cooperation of the respondent — gain insight in the actual behaviour/conduct of the respondent rather than just the remembered and recollected behaviour/conduct.

As a qualitative method participant observation originates in the world of anthropology where researchers began conducting research by “moving out to” and spending time among the people they researched.

Participant and passive observation

There are several kinds of qualitative methods of observation which roughly can be divided into two groups: participant observation and passive observation.

In participant observation the interviewer takes part of the respondent's doings with regards to a specific area/field and hereby the interviewer gains insight in the views of the respondents.

The observation part is often combined with a conversation part, where the interviewer continuously interviews the respondent with regards to the specific topic and based on this one can compare what people say they do with what they actually are doing.

An example could be that a company wishes to gain insight in how the employees use the common facilities. An interviewer is introduced in the company and shows up every morning for a week together with the employees. The interviewer is a part of the working day of the company and continuously interviews chosen employees about their activities/movements.

In passive observation there aren't any interviews under observation — but typically when the observation is concluded.

An example could be that an observer follows a number of consumers in order to see how they use a given product. Subsequently the consumers are interviewed.

Observation involves a number of methods and techniques such as informal interviews, direct observation, participation in the activities of the respondents and collective discussions based on observations. Observation is usually seen as a qualitative method, but there can be quantitative elements such as questionnaires included.

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