What Is Naturalistic Observation? Definition and Examples

Man Observing In Forest
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Naturalistic observation is a research method used in psychology and other social sciences in which research participants are observed in their natural environments. Unlike lab experiments that involve testing hypotheses and controlling variables, naturalistic observation simply requires recording what is observed in a specific setting.

Kay Takeaways: Naturalistic Observation

  • Naturalistic observation is a research method in which people or other subjects are observed in their natural setting.
  • Psychologists and other social scientists use naturalistic observation to study specific social or cultural settings that couldn’t be investigated in other ways, such as prisons, bars, and hospitals.
  • Naturalistic observation has some drawbacks, including the inability to control for variables and a lack of replicability.

Naturalistic Observation Applications

Naturalistic observation involves observing subjects of interest in their normal, everyday setting. It is sometimes referred to as field work because it requires researchers to go out into the field (the natural setting) to collect data on their participants. Naturalistic observation traces its roots back to anthropology and animal behavior research. For example, cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead used naturalistic observation to study the daily lives of different tribes in the South Pacific.

The approach doesn't always require researchers to observe people in such exotic environments, however. It can be conducted in any kind of social or organizational setting, including offices, schools, bars, prisons, dorm rooms, online message boards, or just about any other place where people can be observed. For example, psychologist Sylvia Scribner used naturalistic observation to investigate how people make decisions in various professions. To do so, she accompanied people—from milk men, to cashiers, to machine operators—as they went about their regular work routines.

Naturalistic observation is valuable when a researcher wants to learn more about people in a specific social or cultural setting but can’t gather the information any other way. Sometimes studying people in a lab can impact their behavior, be cost prohibitive, or both. For example, if a researcher wishes to study the behavior of shoppers in the weeks leading up to the Christmas holiday, it would be impractical to construct a store in the lab. Plus, even if the researcher did so, it would be unlikely to elicit the same response from participants as shopping at a store in the real world. Naturalistic observation offers the opportunity to observe shoppers’ behavior, and based on researchers' observations of the situation, has the potential to generate new ideas for specific hypotheses or avenues of research.

The method requires researchers to immerse themselves in the setting being studied. This typically involves taking copious field notes. Researchers may also interview specific people involved in the situation, collect documents from the setting, and make audio or video recordings. In her research on decision-making in different occupations, for instance, Scribner not only took detailed notes, she also gathered every scrap of written material her participants read and produced, and photographed the equipment they used.

Scope of the Observation

Before going into the field, researchers conducting naturalistic observation must define the scope of their research. While the researcher may want to study everything about the people in the chosen setting, this may not be realistic given the complexities of human behavior. As a result, the researcher must focus observations on the specific behaviors and responses they are most interested in studying.

For example, the researcher might choose to collect quantitative data by counting the number of times a specific behavior occurs. So, if the researcher is interested in dog owners' interactions with their dogs, they might tally the number of times the owner talks to their dog during a walk. On the other hand, much of the data collected during naturalistic observation, including notes, audio and video recordings and interviews, are qualitative data that require the researcher to describe, analyze, and interpret what was observed.

Sampling Methods

Another way researchers can limit the scope of a study is by using a specific sampling method. This will enable them to gather a representative sample of data on the subjects’ behavior without having to observe everything the subject does at all times. Sampling methods include:

  • Time sampling, which means the researcher will observe subjects at different intervals of time. These intervals could be random or specific. For example, the researcher could decide to only observe subjects every morning for an hour.
  • Situation sampling, which means the researcher will observe the same subjects in various situations. For instance, if a researcher wants to observe the behavior of Star Wars fans' responses to the release of the most recent movie in the franchise, the researcher might observe fans’ behavior at the red carpet of the movie's premiere, during screenings, and on online Star Wars message boards.
  • Event sampling, which means the researcher will only record specific behaviors and ignore all others. For example, when observing interactions between children on a playground, the researcher might decide they’re only interested in observing how children decide to take turns on the slide while ignoring behavior on the other playground equipment.

Pros and Cons of Naturalistic Observation

There are a number of advantages to naturalistic observation. These include:

  • Studies have greater external validity because the researcher’s data comes directly from observing subjects in their natural environment.
  • Observing people in the field can lead to glimpses of behavior that could never occur in a lab, possibly leading to unique insights.
  • The researcher can study things that would be impossible or unethical to reproduce in a lab. For example, while it would be unethical to study the way people cope with the aftermath of violence by manipulating exposure in a lab, researchers can gather data on this subject by observing participants in a support group.

Despite its value in certain situations, naturalistic observation can have a number of drawbacks, including:

  • Naturalistic observation studies typically involve observing a limited number of settings. As a result, the subjects being studied are limited to certain ages, genders, ethnicities, or other characteristics, which means a study’s findings cannot be generalized to the population as a whole.
  • Researchers can’t control for different variables like they can in a lab, which makes naturalistic observation studies less reliable and more difficult to replicate.
  • Lack of control over external variables also makes it impossible to determine the cause of the behaviors the researcher observes.
  • If subjects know they’re being observed, it has the potential to change their behavior.

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