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The observation is the targeted , attentive perception of objects , phenomena or processes , optionally with the use of technical aids. In contrast to measurements , observations aim less at quantitative recording of objects than at qualitative data.

Observations are made in almost all scientific and technical disciplines. This article treats the areas of natural sciences , the social research and the basic method of empirical science empirical basis of data. The scientific observation to objective and repeatable be. Systematic, repeated and regular observation is an essential part of monitoring .

The observation as a scientific method is the naive everyday observation to distinguish: the everyday observation tends to be subjective and due to immediate needs of the observer. Scientific observation , on the other hand, tries to be systematic and objective. In order to achieve this systematics, an observation plan and an organization of the observation process are required , in which it is determined

  1. what is observed by whom , when and where ,
  2. how what is observed is to be recorded , and
  3. whether the observed and in which form interpreted is.

The observers may need to be trained and prepared intensively. Systematic records, for example in the form of an observation book or in digital form, are always useful .

General information on observation

Scientific theoretical foundations

Observation receives central attention in the theory of science . However, there is no theoretical agreement there. As early as 1887 , Ferdinand Tönnie's sociology and, more specifically , the Vienna Circle for all empirical science in the 1930s assumed that empirical sentences (“ protocol sentences ”) and theoretical sentences ( derived from axioms ) could be separated. Log records therefore record observations, theoretical sentences then allow questions about the findings and may be refuted by them .

These assumptions were rejected by Pierre Duhem and Willard Van Orman Quine from the 1940s onwards . According to them, there can be no theory-free observation (“ Duhem-Quine thesis ”). There has also been talk of an underdetermination of observational data or evidence. In the context of perception theory , this has a correspondence in criticism and the like. a. by Wilfrid Sellars on a “myth of the given”. Thomas Samuel Kuhn radicalized such positions to the thesis that then no completely rationalizable cross-theoretical dispute about “purely empirical observational data” is possible. Theories of science, which consider an objectivity of science not only to be unattainable, but also to strive for it as harmful, judge observations according to other guidelines. Other theorists of science, such as B. Bas van Fraassen , limit the concept of the observable to that which can be perceived without aids. The thus defined observability is a theory-independent concept, the limits of which are determined within the empirical sciences.

Distinguishing features of observations

Direct or indirect observation
In the case of direct observation , the object to be observed is recorded immediately at a specific point in time . In the case of indirect observation , the event itself is not recorded, only its traces and effects.
Mediated or unmediated observation
Mediated observations use a recording device to store and later analyze the observation content. Possible problem of media-specific selection , possible change in the 'natural' situation. The immediate observation does not use any technical aids during observation, only notes are made, possibly afterwards. One potential problem arises from the selective perception of the observer.
Observation with or without manipulation of independent variables
with manipulation of independent variables : data acquisition through observation in experimental and quasi-experimental designs. without manipulation of independent variables stands for pure observation.
Quantitative or qualitative forms
Strongly structured forms of observation work more quantitatively ( e.g. counting cars at an intersection, recording passers-by in a shopping street). However, many observation methods are more qualitative , such as the (possibly participating) observation of an ethnologist of a rain dance in a 'foreign' culture or the observations of a sociologist in a court hearing .
Involved or uninvolved
The point of view / point of view of the observer is / is not part of the observed system .

Observation in science and technology

Observations are mostly combined with measurements or counts , but can also be limited to the pure determination of phenomena - for example in biology , astronomy or geology . Sometimes indirect observations are made, for example when the phenomenon can no longer be determined but has left traces. In rare cases, the questioning of random observers or the phenomenological interpretation can also assume the character of observations.

Observation needs and examples

Important requirements for scientific purposes, the reliable documentation and the critical review of data for measurements and testing for consistency and local and temporal representativeness .

Typical examples of individual subject areas are

Special observation places

If observations are not made directly in the wild , special locations are often required. In the order of the subject area above, these are for example:


In contrast to pure observation - which mainly determines or classifies phenomena - measurements aim at quantitative statements about the observed object or process. The measured values ​​relate to a clearly defined unit of measurement (absolute measurement) or a comparison (relative measurement).

The measurement result is considered a reliable statement about an object if it has been checked for accuracy and consistency. In most cases, a statement about the size of possible measurement errors , which are in principle unavoidable, is sought. Measurements in physical and technical fields must be checked precisely for possible systematic sources of error in the measurement methods. Such analyzes are part of the evaluation of the measurements and are often backed up by methods of mathematical statistics . The most common quality statement about a measurement is the standard deviation (statistical mean error).

A frequent problem, which is often difficult to identify, is that of systematic errors caused by changing method or environmental influences as well as the persons measuring. In the case of processes or phenomena in nature, the spatial or temporal representativeness should also be checked if possible .

Most scientific-technical measured quantities are of a geometric or physical nature, for example

Random observations

Much knowledge in science and technology arose from unintentional or accidental observations, for example

Observation in Social Research

In addition to questioning and content analysis, observation is an important method in the social sciences. It should be used to record social behavior. Observation describes methods of systematically tracking social interaction with the help of one's own notes, protocols or media recordings.

The observation is differentiated

  • according to the degree of structuredness, as unstructured, partially structured, fully structured,
  • according to the degree of naturalness of the observation situation in the field or laboratory,
  • whether participating or not,
  • whether open or covered.

Occasionally two other dimensions of observation are cited.

  • Object of observation, as self or external observation,
  • indirectly or via the media or standing in direct contact with the observed.

Structured and unstructured observation

  • Unstructured observation : Only a rough framework and guidelines and only a few observation categories are given. This leaves the observer with a certain flexibility and openness to the object of observation.
  • Structured observation : A fixed observation scheme is used. A system of characteristics or categories must be created for this.

Participant and non-participant observation

  • Participating observation
    • active: The observer is himself active in the group he is observing. He has an "everyday" role in the social field . However, there is a risk of “going native”, i.e. familiarity with and identification with the events observed. This jeopardizes the objectivity of the observation and could lead to falsified results which are then no longer valid (valid).
    • passive: the observer is present but has an insignificant role in the field, for example that of a visitor.
  • Non-participating observation: The observer is not directly present, he evaluates the group or the people without intervening personally. This is the case with a video recording, for example.

Open and covert observation

  • Open observation : the observer reveals himself to the test person as an observer. One potential problem with open observation is reactivity and the emergence of social desirability .
  • Covert observation : the observer does not reveal himself as such. A covert observation method is mystery shopping . The covert observation raises questions of scientific ethics particularly emphatically .

Mixed forms

A few mixed forms should be emphasized.

  • Openly non-participating observation : The observer reveals himself to his interaction partners, but does not take part in the situation ( video recording ).
  • Openly participating observation : The observer participates in the situation and reveals himself to his interaction partners as an observer.
  • In covert, non-participating observation : the observer tries to remain unnoticed and not to intervene.
  • Covert participant observation : The observer does not reveal himself to his interaction partners as such (espionage method with an undercover agent or famous observations by Günter Wallraff ). The ethical question of science is here completely evident; The secret agent or the criminal who is preparing a bank robbery also observes covertly participating.

Field observation and laboratory observation

  • Field observation : the observation takes place in a natural social situation. Field observation enables the long-term investigation of the effects of variables that cannot be manipulated by the observer and in the context of complex social events.
  • Observation in the laboratory : The observation takes place in an artificially created situation.

On individual social science subjects


Wherever the survey raises major problems, for example when researchers and researched people belong to different cultures, observation is the ideal way to research social behavior and behavior .


This also applies to sociology when the subject of research is sensitive or when researcher and researcher are very different from each other. In sociology, the term “ observation ” plays a role as a different technical term in systems theory .


In psychology, a distinction is made between observation of others and observation of oneself. In external observation , strange behaviors are observed; in self- observation and self- observation (also introspection) one's own behavior, feelings and thoughts are observed.

Observation as a research method

In order to be able to draw up studies, analyzes and statistics in science and later make them public, a topic must first be examined. One research method that helps in obtaining empirical data is observation.

Types of observation

The self-exploration, self-assessments, which are recorded by answering questionnaires (standardized guided self-observation) or interviews (guided self-observation). The evaluation of diaries is also based on introspection. However, this data is hardly useful. Due to the expectations of the persons concerned, the results are not objective and often falsified by wishful thinking.
External observation
in contrast to introspection, another person makes a picture of the matter. The observers can pay different attention to topics, set the priorities differently, so that the results get a selective character. In addition, the mass of data makes it difficult to draw a balance.
Opportunity observation
the observer waits for a situation or fact already expected by him. However, the representativeness of the result must be viewed critically. This is because the probability that the situation will occur repeatedly or to the same extent is low.
Systematic observation
or scientific observation is used to obtain empirical data. It is carried out by trained people in a staged observation room. In order to maintain neutrality and impartiality, these individuals should not be thoroughly familiar with the focus of the research topic being analyzed. The following quality criteria are the basic prerequisites for the empirical collection of data and their evaluation: If a result is perceived equally by several people, the objectivity is assured. Reliability is also a prerequisite because all results should be accurately measured and reliable. If the data has been collected objectively and reliably, the result is valid in practice (validity).
Unsystematic observation
or everyday observation is a more random perception without intention or plan, which focuses on the entire event and not on details. It is without precise definition of what, when, how and where is observed.

See also


Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Doris Bohnet, Von Electrons and Jupiter Moons - Attempt to Draw the Line between the Observable and the Unobservable (PDF; 538 kB), Master's thesis at the University of Hamburg, August 2006, accessed on June 22, 2013.
  2. René König (ed.): Observation and experiment in social research. Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne 1962, DNB 454764324 .