Expert Observation: More to it than meets the eye?

Studying people is fundamental to changing society for the better. It is important to understand how and why different people behave as they do; getting a sense of human patterns and motivations. Within social studies this is often approached using questionnaires or interviews. Rather than attempting to get at beliefs, values, attitudes via self-reporting, with all its issues of truthfulness etc, another method is the direct observation of people’s actions and behaviours and to use these to work back towards imputed attitudes and beliefs.

Observation, here, is more than the spontaneous, passive observing of things (although there is a useful role for that). It is, rather, the active, deliberate observation of those things that are the focus of enquiry at the time.

Even in casual everyday observing, not everything can be noticed all the time. The brain continuously selects, isolates, focuses, overlooks. With deliberate observation, much of that sifting and sorting of what is important has already been done through some pre-observation thinking and decision-making. By having a clear observation framework perception is sharpened in particular ways. The researcher is attuned to notice the specific features under observation so that what might be of particular interest stands out within the wider mass of things seen.

This article looks at some of the features of this ‘expert’ observation and describes one very simple practice exercise where observation was used to explore the various uses of park areas.

As with other social investigative methods, observation comes in a variety of forms:

It can focus on qualitative or quantitative data, or a mix of both.

It can aim to be more open and exploratory, or be more closed and confirmatory in nature.

It can be characterised by transparency or by relative obscurity about what is being undertaken.

It can be done against a structured and predetermined framework or can be relatively unstructured and freestyle.

Observation, as a research method, has the advantage of often being relatively inexpensive. It is able to discern things as they happen, in their context. It can be a useful method for uncovering non-verbal behaviours. It is direct. It doesn’t ask people to try to express in words what they believe their views to be.

At the same time, an observer is not infallible. There may be some misinterpretation as things are observed. At the analysis stage, there may be misattribution of motivations to what has been observed. There may be a limiting of conclusions by using an over-prescriptive theoretical or methodological framework for making sense of what has been observed.

Observation as a method is usually less reactive; less intrusive; less disruptive. At the other extreme, close observation of people going about their normal lives can border on invasions of privacy

As with other methods there will be a range of issues to be addressed: the possibility of observer effects shaping the outcomes of the observation; issues of ethics; the usual research concerns of reliability, accuracy, validity and so on.

Whether or not observation is the most appropriate method and, if so, how it is approached depends on what the researcher/observer is trying to accomplish: To record, to explain, to get deep understanding, to get surface categorisations, to assist theory-building, to attempt to see things from the observed person’s point of view, to count frequencies or volumes of things happening, to uncover meanings behind wider social practices ???.

Expert observation does not just happen. There is preparation to be done. There are decisions to be made:

Is the best thing to observe things in their natural messiness, in the randomnesses of everyday life; or to minimise external influences by setting up an artificial, laboratory-type setting?

A researcher needs clarity about the obviousness/covertness re the things being observed. Too obvious then it starts to influence what is being observed; too remote and things may be indistinct or ambiguous. Does the researcher act as detached observer or as participant in what is taking place? How open is the observation process about the fact that things are being observed and recorded, or does the researcher try to conceal that fact. Is the most appropriate thing to be marginal to the observed group or activity: melting into the background – able to observe without being an active participant?

Is the thing being observed somehow representative of the area of concern or an outrider being looked at for its uniquenesses?

Some pre-observation thought needs to be given to what the observer may be looking for: The serendipity of simply whatever happens? Repeated patterns of similarities? Differences (particularly those differences that make a difference)? This shapes the observation framework and makes it easier to spot the behaviours that are important.

What about the need for some rules; for a formal schedule of things to be looked for; or particular aspects to be recorded against? What kind or recording proforma might best be used, if any? Or is it a matter of letting things take their course and record that? Or some mix of the two? There may be no way of predicting the wide range of things that will be observed and some things may get overlooked without having a prepared mind.

Are the observations to be seen directly or recorded as video or still photography? What kind of recording will enable any analysis to be done most easily and effectively?

There will be considerations about scale, scope, timeframes etc. What is an appropriate number of observations to make?

It might be decided that a series of observations are needed over time. This raises questions about the extent to which the observation is replicable: Would it mean repeat observations of the same phenomenon over and over, or of different versions of the activity under study?

Such preparation leads to clarity about the who, what, where and why of what is going to be observed; about the limits to the observation and the necessary requirements to make it do the job intended.

The observation itself still relies on the perceptions (and perceptiveness) of an observer – a human person who may come to the observation with their own set of prejudices, attitudes, assumptions, desires, expectations : A person who may end up seeing what they are looking for. Observers need to be receptive, insightful, self-aware, and alert to the varying ways that the observation (and subsequent analysis) might get shaped..

Some of the potential failings of any individual observer can be minimised by having a small team of observers and cross-referencing between the several observations made.

There may be concerns about who the observer is in relation to the thing being observed – how far the nature and experiences of the observer differ from those of the observed. Quite a bit has been written on eg feminism and methodology; and the research by insiders and obvious outsiders. These considerations apply at the design stage, the observation itself, and at the stages of analysis, interpretation and reporting. Which takes things back to the need to be clear about the purposes of the observation, the values underpinning the exploration and the uses to which any information might be put.


A very simple example: Expert observation of park usage

This arose from some training sessions I was doing on alternatives to resident questionnaires/ interviews as a way of finding out what might be needed in the redevelopment of a location. We took park-use as the example. Different groups of people were closely observed in how they used park spaces within one part of the city and this was used as an exercise looking at how parks might be designed or redesigned.

The instructions were to observe how people used the park area differently; to notice routes taken; places of congregation; spots lingered at; speed of movement and so on; to see if there were groupings that seemed to follow similar patterns.

Trainees could choose their own approaches: Recording numbers using various pathways; using colours to record routes on a map of the area; categorising by speed, or directness, or by choice of open spaces as opposed to wooded areas; and so on. Some devised quite complex recording frames in which to record their observations; others started with a blank sheet and built patterns up as observations went along. In some cases, once groupings had been identified, observations were supplemented by informal conversations (but not formal interviews) with people. Some reported their outcomes individually, some collaborated to produce cross-referenced results.

What were the outcomes from this observation exercise? Different groups were identified, along with the different ways they related to the same space. Examples were:

People cutting through direct from gate to gate

Appeared focused; at exit gate many went to nearby bus stop; most seemed to be on way to work. Constantly glancing at road wherever there was a clear view of surrounding roads/bus routes.

Dog walkers (single or in groups):

Took long routes, tending to stay on tarmac paths and wooded trails; used open grass area for dogs to run; lingered in small wooded areas, for dog to explore; stopped at garden/soil area for dog to do dog-mess; Stopped and started; Made good use of frequently-placed, obvious bins

Parents taking small children to school:

Took quickish routes, gate to gate; Parents appeared relaxed – chatting in groups but were vigilant – children kept in sight, with constant calling them back to stay closer to parents; Avoided grassy/muddy areas; stayed on solid surface on pathways for children to cycle/use scooters.

Older children on way to school/ on way home:

Car park used to drop children off, away from school entrance; Parents walked with child until there was a clear, safe route to nearest school entrance (no overgrown areas, no blind corners); Older children used benches to sit on as meeting point for friends; took cover under trees in cases of sudden downpour; children constantly on phone, and either noisily interacting in large groups or standing aside in quiet pairs.

Adults on regular/ daily walk:

Some were using park functionally eg to cut through to get morning newspaper/milk: Used variety of routes there and back; Others were using park for wellbeing (power walking, gentle strolling, more rarely tai chi) or as stroke-recoverers or with carers: Used variety of circuits of varying lengths and levels of difficulty. Sought out clean surfaces; routes took in a mix of water, grass, trees, nature. Used areas to dally plus areas to get up speed.


Used circuits round edge of park; Used good surfaces, relatively clear of pedestrians, with few/no junctions/crossings. Where possible went at speed.

Parents & children gathering; or solitary grandparents/parents with child:

A fairly mixed group, using the parks in different ways – so with different potential needs. Buggy-groups using clear space with solid surfaces; not overexposed to others, so a bit off to one side; with access to coffee/chat afterwards. Some individuals strolling a child to get them off to sleep, looked for non-bumpy surfaces, on routes that stayed well away from play areas or noisy areas, able to hear nature (birds/water/leaves). When child was asleep parent got bits of respite sitting on bench up a quiet corner. Small groups with babies regularly met socially in café.

Fitness people:

Went for variety of natural surfaces (except for ‘easy joggers’, who tended to only use tarmac) – bark, gravel (not grass) – with variety of inclines; trails and routes at 1k, 2k, 3k.. Used benches/ fallen logs as minigyms – stretching, bending, squats, push-ups etc. Avoided surfaces that were not sound underfoot.

Occasional visitors:

Tended to wander more than other groups, looking at new things; more frequent stops, places to sit and get the feel of the place. More use made of toilets/cafe.

Young lovers:

Spaced themselves away from others; grass to lie on/ bench to sit on; Tended more to wander slowly, talking. More use made of nearby shop for snacks etc.


Individuals, sitting undisturbed by others; time spent watching world without doing activities; Occasionally got up to use toilet, and tended to return to same seat.


External hirers (dog training group; fitness club; small commercial stalls; events); photographer; teenagers playing informal football/ cricket


Each group had observable behaviours that were different from those of other groups. Some groups used the park at more specific times, others were throughout the day. The apparent needs of some groups might conflict with the apparent needs of another group. Designing a new park layout might start with trying to build on such observations. When there are two or three alternatives that can satisfy the variety of uses, then more detailed conversations with such groups can expand the plans – as can more structured interviews and questionnaires.


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