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Observational Methods  

Combining Critical Distance and Inside Knowledge?

Christian Olsson

This chapter assesses observational methods. What distinguishes observational methods, and particularly participant observation (PO), from other data-gathering methods is, among others, that it privileges direct observation over the use of instruments. This implies that the observation is likely to be holistic, in the sense of involving the five senses, rather than only one of the senses (typically sight). PO also privileges observation in real time over the retrospective observation of traces left by past activities (texts, pictures, filmed sequences). It allows one to observe discourses, practices, interactions, and context together rather than separately. It focuses on first-hand observation, as opposed to observation based on secondary sources (involving a mediator or third person). PO is sometimes accused of harbouring a naive belief in the scientific virtue of ‘gut feeling’.


This chapter deals with qualitative data. While everyone is familiar with the idea of interviewing and observing, actually collecting qualitative data is not as easy as it might first appear to be. In fact, when doing qualitative work, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the amount of information collected. However, with some purposeful planning, piloting, and practice, the student can avoid some of the pitfalls associated with qualitative data collection. Focusing on qualitative interviews and participant observation, the chapter introduces some of the common issues that arise when gathering qualitative data and offers useful advice concerning the planning and practice of collecting data ‘in the field’.


This chapter discusses the principles of ethnography and participant observation: what they are, how (if) they became standardized as a research method, what form of evidence they constitute, and what place they occupy in the study of Politics. Participant observation has emerged as a popular research tool across the social sciences. In particular, political ethnographies are now widely carried out in a broad variety of contexts, from the study of political institutions and organizations to the investigation of social movements and informal networks, such as terrorist groups and drugs cartels. Political ethnography is also becoming a research method of choice in the field of International Relations. The chapter examines the strengths of ethnographic fieldwork, focusing on issues relating to sampling, access, key informants, and collecting observational data. It also addresses the weaknesses of ethnography, especially issues of subjectivity, reliability, and generalizability.


Political Research: Methods and Practical Skills provides a practical and relevant guide to the research process for students. It equips readers with the knowledge and skills needed to evaluate research findings and successfully carry out independent study and research. Taking a helpful step-by-step approach, the chapters guide the reader through the process of asking and answering research questions and the different methods used in political research, providing practical advice on how to be critical and rigorous in both evaluating and conducting research. Topics include research design, surveys, interviewing and focus groups, ethnography and participant observation, textual analysis, quantitative analysis, bivariate analysis, and multivariate analysis. With an emphasis throughout on how research can impact important political questions and policy issues, the book equips readers with the skills to formulate significant questions and develop meaningful and persuasive answers.