Observation is a major part of scientific research, and there are two main categories of observation: qualitative and quantitative. Both types of observation have their place in research and the gathering of information, and in many cases they are combined to create a comprehensive result. Certain types of research lend themselves more to qualitative observation, while others lend themselves more to quantitative observation.

Observation and Science

Scientists learn much about the world around us by observing how people, animals and objects react and interact in various situations. Nearly all areas of scientific research use observation as one of the many tools that are used to make new discoveries and increase our understanding of the world. Observations can be made using a wide variety of tools for measuring reactions and results, as well as simply by watching as events unfold.

Qualitative Observation

Qualitative observation is generally more subjective, as it relies on the gathering of information that is less easy to quantify, such as research involving human behavior. Qualitative observations are often made through interviews, participant observation (where a scientist is entrenched in the situation being observed), and passive observation. Psychologists, sociologists and other social scientists often rely on qualitative research because much of what is being observed cannot be measured in any other way. Animal behavior and human behavior are common examples of areas where observation is usually qualitative in nature.

Quantitative Observation

Quantitative research involves observations using tools and methods that allow results to be quantified in objective ways, usually using numbers or measurements. Quantitative research can be used in nearly all areas of research but is less common in the social sciences, where behaviors are being observed. Observing anything that can be measured, such as changes in size, color or number, is considered quantitative observation.

The Difference

The most basic difference between qualitative and quantitative observation is the way in which results are measured. Qualitative observation is generally more subjective, while quantitative observation is more objective. Qualitative observations go through a constant process of analysis while being gathered; quantitative observations are analyzed after data is collected. Qualitative observations are most often performed in field observations using natural settings, while quantitative observations are better suited to a controlled laboratory environment.