Naturalistic Observation and Case-Study Research


field research applies to a variety of research methods from high to low "constraint"


naturalistic observation direct observation of events as they occur in natural settings

archival research studying information from already existing records made in natural settings

surveys asking direct questions of persons in natural settings

case study making extensive observations of a single group or a person

program evaluation conducting evaluations of applied procedures in natural settings

field experiments conducting experiments in natural settings where causal inferences are sought


low constraint research imposes few, if any, controls or constraints on subject's behavior (constraints are on the researcher)


naturalist observation

--classic example: Charles Darwin - 5 years aboard HMS Beagle

     gathered specimens and compiled descriptive data to develop theory of evolution

--Jane Goodall's study of chimpanzees in their natural habitat Tanzania

--Dian Fosseystudied mountain gorilla in Africa

--anthropologists who live among people of different cultures

--Levine's (1982) study of Love Canal


case-study research

--is naturalistic observation but with some mild constraints imposed on the procedures

--not typically carried out in natural environments, setting usually selected by researcher

--typically focused on individuals

--typically looks at limited classes of behavior rather than the total context and natural flow of behavior

--example, work of Sigmund Freud

--example, work of Jean Piaget on the cognitive development of children


Conditions for Using Low Constraint Research

--when question concerns natural flow of behavior in natural settings

--at the beginning stages of research in a new area (generate ideas for higher constraint research)

--to familiarize researchers with subjects or settings that are new to them (though not a new research area)

--demonstrate a new research for treatment technique (question is whether technique is feasible)

--test the generalizability of the theories developed or refined on the basis of laboratory techniques

Information Gained for Low Constraint

--new, descriptive information

--negate a general proposition (but cannot establish one)

--causal inferences cannot be made but can obtain useful information about relations between variables (contingency relationsbased on probability)


Problem Statements and Hypotheses

--focused on identifying contingencies (i.e., what variables seem to go together)

--often general or vague, and become more focused as research progresses


Using Naturalistic Observation and Case-study Methods

--planning is less formal and plans are much more fluid

--data is gathered using either unobtrusive observation or participant observation

--if using participant observation, can manipulate own behavior to create situations in which to test hypotheses

--unobtrusive measures need not be visual (e.g., museum tiles, trip photography)

--sampling of subjects may not be under researcher's control (cannot guarantee representativeness of sample)

--sampling of situations may be limited (should try to get as many as possible)


Evaluating and Interpreting Data

-data can be codes

-can run frequencies, or limited statistical analysis


Limitations of Naturalistic and Case-Study Methods

--poor representativeness

--cannot generalize beyond those studied

--difficult to replicate unless procedures have been very explicit

--cannot draw causal inferencesmay lead to erroneous ex post facto reasoning

--potential for experimenter reactivity or experimenter bias is higher


Survey Research

--is not single research designdiscussed here because data collected in natural environments

--major goal is to learn about ideas, knowledge, feelings, opinions, attitudes, beliefs, values, and self-reported behavior


  1. Determine what area of information is to be sought
  2. Define the population to be studied
  3. Decide how the survey is to be administered
  4. Construct the first draft of the survey instrument; edit and refine the draft
  5. Pretest it with a subsample; refine it further
  6. Develop a sampling frame and draw a representative sample
  7. Administer the form of the instrument to the sample
  8. Analyze, interpret, and communicate the results


Form of the Survey Instrument

3 typesmail, telephone, interview

instrument should have clear focus


**survey research is not well suited to early exploratory research because researcher must have clear focus