Direct Observation

“Direct observation is distinguished from participant observation in a number of ways. First, a direct observer doesn’t typically try to become a participant in the context. However, the direct observer does strive to be as unobtrusive as possible so as not to bias the observations. Second, direct observation suggests a more detached perspective. The researcher is watching rather than taking part. Consequently, technology can be a useful part of direct observation. For instance, one can videotape the phenomenon or observe from behind one-way mirrors. Third, direct observation tends to be more focused than participant observation. The researcher is observing certain sampled situations or people rather than trying to become immersed in the entire context. Finally, direct observation tends not to take as long as participant observation. For instance, one might observe child-mother interactions under specific circumstances in a laboratory setting from behind a one-way mirror, looking especially for the nonverbal cues being used.”

Source: Trochim, W. M. K. Research Methods Knowledge Base. (online resource) Qualitative Methods: Direct Observation.

Participant Observation

“One of the most common methods for qualitative data collection, participant observation is also one of the most demanding. It requires that the researcher become a participant in the culture or context being observed. The literature on participant observation discusses how to enter the context, the role of the researcher as a participant, the collection and storage of field notes, and the analysis of field data. Participant observation often requires months or years of intensive work because the researcher needs to become accepted as a natural part of the culture in order to assure that the observations are of the natural phenomenon.”

Source: Trochim, W. M. K. Research Methods Knowledge Base. (online resource) Qualitative Methods: Participant Observation.


An indirect measure is an unobtrusive measure that occurs naturally in a research context. The researcher is able to collect the data without introducing any formal measurement procedure.

The types of indirect measures that may be available are limited only by the researcher’s imagination and inventiveness. For instance, let’s say you would like to measure the popularity of various exhibits in a museum. It may be possible to set up some type of mechanical measurement system that is invisible to the museum patrons. In one study, the system was simple. The museum installed new floor tiles in front of each exhibit they wanted a measurement on and, after a period of time, measured the wear-and-tear of the tiles as an indirect measure of patron traffic and interest. We might be able to improve on this approach considerably using electronic measures. We could, for instance, construct an electrical device that senses movement in front of an exhibit. Or we could place hidden cameras and code patron interest based on videotaped evidence.

One of my favorite indirect measures occurred in a study of radio station listening preferences. Rather than conducting an obtrusive survey or interview about favorite radio stations, the researchers went to local auto dealers and garages and checked all cars that were being serviced to see what station the radio was currently tuned to. In a similar manner, if you want to know magazine preferences, you might rummage through the trash of your sample or even stage a door-to-door magazine recycling effort.

These examples illustrate one of the most important points about indirect measures — you have to be very careful about the ethics of this type of measurement. In an indirect measure you are, by definition, collecting information without the respondent’s knowledge. In doing so, you may be violating their right to privacy and you are certainly not using informed consent. Of course, some types of information may be public and therefore not involve an invasion of privacy.

There may be times when an indirect measure is appropriate, readily available and ethical. Just as with all measurement, however, you should be sure to attempt to estimate the reliability and validity of the measures. For instance, collecting radio station preferences at two different time periods and correlating the results might be useful for assessing test-retest reliability. Or, you can include the indirect measure along with other direct measures of the same construct (perhaps in a pilot study) to help establish construct validity.

Source: Trochim, W. M. K. Research Methods Knowledge Base. (online resource) Unobtrusive Measures: Indirect Measures.


A type of direct observation that emphasizes observing and recording actual situations and behavior, rather than reported or recalled behavior. Observations may focus on individuals, a location (a home or water collection site), or event (healing ceremony). The observer records as much behavior as possible, including actions, conversations, and descriptions of the areas and persons observed. Often, a checklist of topics to observe is developed to guide the observers. (WV 2000)


Part 1: Documents Describing the Method

IFRCHandbook for Monitoring & Evaluation, 1st Edition. International Federation of Red Cross & Red Crescent Societies. Geneva, Switzerland. October 2002. Accessible here.

IFRCHow to conduct a food security assessment: A step-by-step guide for National Societies in Africa. 2nd Edition. International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Geneva, Switzerland. 2006. Accessible here.

UNHCR. Handbook for Emergencies, Third Edition. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Emergency Preparedness and Response Section. Geneva, Switzerland. February 2007. Accessible here.

UNHCR. The UNHCR Tool for Participatory Assessment in Emergency Operations, First Edition. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Geneva, Switzerland. May 2006. Accessible here.

Part 2: Documents Utilizing the Method

WV. Rapid Assessment Procedures (RAP): Addressing the Perceived Needs of Internally Displaced Persons in Gulu District, Uganda. World Vision. 14 September 2000. Accessible here.