What Is Direct Observation?

Cremation Ceremony Bali, Indonesia
A complete observer studies a social process without becoming a part of it in any way.

Tuul & Bruno Morandi/Getty Images

There are many different kinds of field research in which researchers can take any number of roles. They can participate in the settings and situations they wish to study or they can simply observe without participating; they can immerse themselves in the setting and live among those being studied or they can come and go from the setting for short periods of time; they can go "undercover" and not disclose their real purpose for being there or they can disclose their research agenda to those in the setting. This article discusses direct observation with no participation.

Direct Observation With No Participation

Being a complete observer means studying a social process without becoming a part of it in any way. It is possible that, because of the researcher’s low profile, the subjects of the study might not even realize that they are being studied. For example, if you were sitting at a bus stop and observing jaywalkers at a nearby intersection, people would likely not notice you watching them. Or if you were sitting on a bench at a local park observing the behavior of a group of young men playing hacky sack, they probably would not suspect you were studying them.

Fred Davis, a sociologist who taught at the University of California, San Diego, characterized this role of the complete observer as "the Martian." Imagine you were sent to observe some newfound life on Mars. You would likely feel obviously separate and different from the Martians. This is how some social scientists feel when they observe cultures and social groups that are different from their own. It is easier and more comfortable to sit back, observe, and not interact with anyone when you are "the Martian."

How to Decide What Type of Field Research to Use?

In choosing between direct observation, participant observation, immersion, or any form of field research in between, the choice ultimately comes down to the research situation. Different situations require different roles for the researcher. While one setting might call for direct observation, another might be better with immersion. There are no clear guidelines for making the choice on which method to use. The researcher must rely on his or her own understanding of the situation and use his or her own judgment. Methodological and ethical considerations must also come into play as a part of the decision. These things can often conflict, so the decision might be a difficult one and the researcher could find that his or her role limits the study.


Babbie, E. (2001). The Practice of Social Research: 9th Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Crossman, Ashley. "What Is Direct Observation?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/direct-observation-definition-3026532. Crossman, Ashley. (2020, August 28). What Is Direct Observation? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/direct-observation-definition-3026532 Crossman, Ashley. "What Is Direct Observation?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/direct-observation-definition-3026532 (accessed March 30, 2023).