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Social Research: Methods

4. Observation

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In this module, we think about observation as a social research method, focusing on: (i) the importance of the “role” of the researcher – were they a participant or non-participant in the social setting they were observing?; (ii) the usefulness of observation as a way of understanding people’s behaviours and interactions in their social context, as opposed to, for example, in an interview setting; (iii) some issues associated with observation, such as its time- and resource-intensive nature, ethical concerns around, for example, participant observation within extreme groups, and difficulties around making observational studies reliable and replicable.


In this course, Professor Tim May (University of Sheffield) explores several different methods commonly used in social research and outlines how they are applied in practice. In the first module, we look at official statistics, the ways in which they are important for researchers, and debates around their trustworthiness as factual representations of society. The second introduces surveys and how they are constructed, and the third considers three types of interview – the structured, the semi-structured and the unstructured/focused. In the fourth module, we think about observation, both participant and non-participant, and examine some of the practical and ethical issues associated with it as a method. In the final module, we briefly survey some other important social research methods – documentary research, case studies, digital research, and comparative analysis.


Professor Tim May is a Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield. He has a wide range of expertise relating to research methodologies, sociological theory, and the philosophy of social science. His recent publications include Social Research: Issues, Methods and Process (2021, co-authored with Beth Perry), Thinking Sociologically (2019, co-authored with Zygmunt Bauman), Reflexivity: The Essential Guide (2017, co-authored with Beth Perry).

Cite this Lecture

APA style

May, T. (2022, January 26). Social Research: Methods - Observation [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

May, Tim. "Social Research: Methods – Observation." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 26 Jan 2022,

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