Observing: Research and Advanced Nursing

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METHODOLOGICAL ISSUES IN NURSING RESEARCH

In the field: notes on observation in qualitative research
Anne Mulhall
BSc MSc PhD

Independent Training and Research Consultant, The Coach House, Ashmanhaugh, Norfolk, UK

Submitted for publication 9 September 2002 Accepted for publication 18 October 2002

Correspondence: Anne Mulhall, The Coach House, Rectory Road, Ashmanhaugh, Norfolk NR12 8YP, UK. E-mail: amulhull@gold.u-net.com

M U L H A L L A . ( 2 0 0 3 ) Journal of Advanced Nursing 41(3), 306–313 In the field: notes on observation in qualitative research Background. Observation is used in research in two ways – structured and unstructured. Which of these methods to choose depends on the research question but will be defined predominantly by the paradigm underlying each study. Positivistic research generally uses structured observation and interpretist/naturalistic paradigms use unstructured observation. This paper is concerned with unstructured observation. Aim. To discuss the importance of unstructured observation as a research method and to examine critically the problems associated with both access and field notes. Application to nursing. Although unstructured observation has been used in nursing research, it is less favoured than the interview. Furthermore, although some of the dilemmas concerned with observation such as the role of the researcher, covert research and informed consent have received attention in the nursing literature, other aspects remain relatively unexplored. In particular little has been written concerning access to the field and field notes. Both of these aspects have practical and theoretical considerations that require the attention of the researcher. This omission may partly explain nurses’ apparent reluctance to use unstructured observation in their studies. This paper seeks to redress this situation.

Keywords: observation, qualitative research, access, field notes, research methods

Introduction
Observation is used as a research method in two distinct ways – structured and unstructured (Pretzlik 1994). In positivistic research structured observation is a discrete activity whose purpose is to record physical and verbal behaviour. Observation schedules are predetermined using taxonomies developed from known theory. In contrast, unstructured observation is used to understand and interpret cultural behaviour. It is based within the interpretist/contructivist paradigm that acknowledges the importance of context and the coconstruction of knowledge between researcher and ‘researched’. Structured observation is used extensively in psychology, and it is from this aspect that many nurse researchers have adopted the method for their own studies (see for example, Booth et al. 2001). The principle characteristics of structured observation and examples of its use in nursing are summarized by Mulhall (1998). 306

The purpose of this paper is to explore unstructured observation. Although unstructured observation is a key method in anthropological and sociological research, it is used less frequently in qualitative research in nursing where the principal data collecting method is the interview (Merrell & Williams 1994). Of course ethnographic research in nursing has used observational methods, but there is a relative paucity of information about this technique. This is not to imply that the methodological debate has been totally neglected, but to highlight that the whole breadth of discussion has not taken place in the nursing literature. Some of the issues that cause controversy in observation are: • the role of the researcher; • informed consent/deception; • access; • field notes. Ó 2003 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

Methodological issues in nursing research

Observation in qualitative research

The first two of these have received attention in the nursing literature and will be described only briefly here. In contrast, the issues surrounding field notes and access have been neglected. This...
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