Scientific researchers use direct observation to learn about the normal behavior of people or animals in their natural environments. Whereas indirect observation depends on the reports of others, in direct observation, a researcher watches and records while the action is happening. Successful direct observers remain inconspicuous and do not allow their presence to affect the behavior of the subjects they are studying.
A researcher engaged in direct observation gathers data by watching the subjects, either humans or animals, in their natural setting. Social scientists studying human behavior can observe the action occurring in homes or workplaces, depending on what aspect of behavior they are studying. Wildlife biologists, on the other hand, watch the interaction among animals in the field. This kind of observation provides an understanding of how the subjects behave among themselves in their usual environment on a regular basis.
A study involving direct observation has "ecological validity." Observing the subjects in their normal environment, instead of bringing them to an office or laboratory, provides a unique opportunity to learn what the subjects normally do and how they normally behave. However, any deviation from routine, such as actively engaging the subjects, can influence them to perform in a different way, so a completely non-intrusive observer coming into the natural setting of interaction observes a real-life situation.
Some studies place a video camera in a strategic location to capture behavior toward an object, such as a piece of equipment in an office or the placement of furniture in a home. In addition, some studies follow the subjects' complete day, starting with them rising in the morning and ending with them going to sleep.
Because a human's span of attention is finite, lengthy observations need regularly scheduled break periods. The schedule of observations depends on the length and frequency of activity. For example, if the activity continues for a long period of time, observations can be made at regular intervals, such as for 15 minutes every hour. Short, frequent events can be observed randomly throughout the day in order to capture variations from morning to afternoon or evening.
One of the main problems associated with direct observation occurs when the researcher interferes or interacts with the subjects. This results in the subjects behaving in an unnatural manner because of the presence of an outsider. Another possible problem is the "Hawthorne Effect," where human subjects change their behavior because they know that they are being observed. Ethical considerations require researchers to inform them of the observation and to gain their consent.
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