Unobtrusive Observation Essay Outline

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Unobtrusive measures are measures that don't require the researcher to intrude in the research context. Direct and participant observation require that the researcher be physically present. This can lead the respondents to alter their behavior in order to look good in the eyes of the researcher. A questionnaire is an interruption in the natural stream of behavior. Respondents can get tired of filling out a survey or resentful of the questions asked.

Unobtrusive measurement presumably reduces the biases that result from the intrusion of the researcher or measurement instrument. However, unobtrusive measures reduce the degree the researcher has control over the type of data collected. For some constructs there may simply not be any available unobtrusive measures.

Three types of unobtrusive measurement are discussed here.

Indirect Measures

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.

Content Analysis

Content analysis is the analysis of text documents. The analysis can be quantitative, qualitative or both. Typically, the major purpose of content analysis is to identify patterns in text. Content analysis is an extremely broad area of research. It includes:

  • Thematic analysis of text

The identification of themes or major ideas in a document or set of documents. The documents can be any kind of text including field notes, newspaper articles, technical papers or organizational memos.

There are a wide variety of automated methods for rapidly indexing text documents. For instance, Key Words in Context (KWIC) analysis is a computer analysis of text data. A computer program scans the text and indexes all key words. A key word is any term in the text that is not included in an exception dictionary. Typically you would set up an exception dictionary that includes all non-essential words like "is", "and", and "of". All key words are alphabetized and are listed with the text that precedes and follows it so the researcher can see the word in the context in which it occurred in the text. In an analysis of interview text, for instance, one could easily identify all uses of the term "abuse" and the context in which they were used.

  • Quantitative descriptive analysis

Here the purpose is to describe features of the text quantitatively. For instance, you might want to find out which words or phrases were used most frequently in the text. Again, this type of analysis is most often done directly with computer programs.

Content analysis has several problems you should keep in mind. First, you are limited to the types of information available in text form. If you are studying the way a news story is being handled by the news media, you probably would have a ready population of news stories from which you could sample. However, if you are interested in studying people's views on capital punishment, you are less likely to find an archive of text documents that would be appropriate. Second, you have to be especially careful with sampling in order to avoid bias. For instance, a study of current research on methods of treatment for cancer might use the published literature as the population. This would leave out both the writing on cancer that did not get published for one reason or another as well as the most recent work that has not yet been published. Finally, you have to be careful about interpreting results of automated content analyses. A computer program cannot determine what someone meant by a term or phrase. It is relatively easy in a large analysis to misinterpret a result because you did not take into account the subtleties of meaning.

However, content analysis has the advantage of being unobtrusive and, depending on whether automated methods exist, can be a relatively rapid method for analyzing large amounts of text.

Secondary Analysis of Data

Secondary analysis, like content analysis, makes use of already existing sources of data. However, secondary analysis typically refers to the re-analysis of quantitative data rather than text.

In our modern world there is an unbelievable mass of data that is routinely collected by governments, businesses, schools, and other organizations. Much of this information is stored in electronic databases that can be accessed and analyzed. In addition, many research projects store their raw data in electronic form in computer archives so that others can also analyze the data. Among the data available for secondary analysis is:

  • census bureau data
  • crime records
  • standardized testing data
  • economic data
  • consumer data

Secondary analysis often involves combining information from multiple databases to examine research questions. For example, you might join crime data with census information to assess patterns in criminal behavior by geographic location and group.

Secondary analysis has several advantages. First, it is efficient. It makes use of data that were already collected by someone else. It is the research equivalent of recycling. Second, it often allows you to extend the scope of your study considerably. In many small research projects it is impossible to consider taking a national sample because of the costs involved. Many archived databases are already national in scope and, by using them, you can leverage a relatively small budget into a much broader study than if you collected the data yourself.

However, secondary analysis is not without difficulties. Frequently it is no trivial matter to access and link data from large complex databases. Often the researcher has to make assumptions about what data to combine and which variables are appropriately aggregated into indexes. Perhaps more importantly, when you use data collected by others you often don't know what problems occurred in the original data collection. Large, well-financed national studies are usually documented quite thoroughly, but even detailed documentation of procedures is often no substitute for direct experience collecting data.

One of the most important and least utilized purposes of secondary analysis is to replicate prior research findings. In any original data analysis there is the potential for errors. In addition, each data analyst tends to approach the analysis from their own perspective using analytic tools they are familiar with. In most research the data are analyzed only once by the original research team. It seems an awful waste. Data that might have taken months or years to collect is only examined once in a relatively brief way and from one analyst's perspective. In social research we generally do a terrible job of documenting and archiving the data from individual studies and making these available in electronic form for others to re-analyze. And, we tend to give little professional credit to studies that are re-analyses. Nevertheless, in the hard sciences the tradition of replicability of results is a critical one and we in the applied social sciences could benefit by directing more of our efforts to secondary analysis of existing data.

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Copyright ©2006, William M.K. Trochim, All Rights Reserved
Purchase a printed copy of the Research Methods Knowledge Base
Last Revised: 10/20/2006

“Nothing has such power to broaden the mind as the ability to investigate systematically and all that comes under thy observation in life.”
Marcus Aurelius

Every person faces various life situations when it is important to acquire information from a primary source to answer specific questions. Grab an observation essay example to see how experts arrange such information. Fact, observation, and inference are three words students should memorize. Writing a good observation essay makes a movie director out of the writer: he/she is focused on describing a particular experience using five senses:

  • Taste
  • Sight
  • Touch
  • Smell
  • Hearing

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Observation Essay Example of Outline

Read our unique guideline to have an observation essay example of outline!


You should face the problem discussed in your paper at least once in your life. To create a powerful observation essay, the author has to be a topic guru: describe what you survived or what inspires you.

Example: you decide to cover the topic of how safe it is to fly on a plane. It is not enough to take statistics and say it is the safest type of transport in the world without being the passenger. A good writer must share personal experience in order to support this claim. Attend a new restaurant before writing a review. Watch the latest movie before criticizing it in your work.

The planned experience involves taking notes, so carry a blank sheet of paper or mobile phone everywhere to write a part of what you wish to share. Leave the details for your first observation essay draft. Describe the entire process: from entering the restaurant and making an order to accepting the bill from the waiter. Conclude your impressions in the paper’s draft. Select several criteria to put a specific grade: quality of service, a variety of food, the location of the table, etc.

Each time your personal opinion changes (e.g., you order a different dish), write down these modifications. Put the events in a chronological order not to get confused. Ask your friends about the same restaurant to have a fuller picture before concluding.

Do not forget to obtain rights reserved once you’re done so that no one steals your words.

Write an Outline

To have a proper, logical paper structure, it is important to come up with an outline. Every time you get stuck, have a look at your observation essay plan to arrange the thoughts. You may change your final draft, but you must stick to the prepared outline. If your teacher requires, make a separate page with a detailed outline.

Do not hesitate to contact professional writing services in case you have problems with writing an outline or any other page.


Try to provide the reading audience with the unique opportunity to familiarize them with the described event/experience. Write your thesis statement first. It will be the essay’s fundament; create a sound hook sentence to catch your reader’s eyes. Share some background information to let the readers know why you have chosen the specific observation essay topics. Example: you discuss the political elections campaign; tell several words about the candidates and the general mood of the event.

Three-Paragraph Body

An observational essay has a body like any other type of academic assignment: research paper, article review, book report, etc. Teachers recommend developing a three-paragraph body with three powerful, supporting arguments. Arrange the notes according to your paper’s outline; add more details. Remember:

“Often it is tiny fragments which either make a picture convincing or incidental."
Simone Bingemer


Prevent your last paragraph from being wordy. Write a summary of the main points (arguments), restate your thesis sentence, and finish your paper with a call-to-action or another technique applied to leave powerful impressions. You may end with a rhetorical action, for example. Do not forget about the paper’s last page! The last page of an observation essay must contain a full bibliography list (list of references) to stress the author respects works with all rights reserved.

Proofread & Edit!

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Once you are done with your observation essay, do not hurry to submit your paper - there are several factors to check on every page:

  • Grammar
  • Spelling & Punctuation

Check whether the paper’s formatting corresponds to the instructor’s requirements; scan the final draft to see if it is 100% unique.


15 Most Effective Observation Essay Topics

Impressive vocabulary & organization skills are two other features a student needs to write a good observation essay. The main goal is not to deliver a certain message, but share valuable experience with your audience. It is important to choose the topic carefully. Discover free, useful observation essay examples to grab several great ideas for your personal paper.

Here is the list of observation essay topics to choose from:

  1. Thoughts on body piercing and tattoo
  2. Is tolerance important?
  3. Which video game may result in death?
  4. Significance of freedom and independence
  5. Meaning of money in modern world
  6. Sports develop leadership
  7. How I met my favorite movie star
  8. Is it dangerous to fly on the planes?
  9. Which book is worth reading at any age?
  10. New restaurant next-door
  11. The perfect birthday/wedding gift
  12. How must the word “honesty” be defined in dictionaries?
  13. Music as a great healing therapy
  14. How I personally became successful after writing the first page of my short story
  15. The qualities of true leaders based on people I met in my life

Type the title of the essay you like in Google search field to find a good observation essay example to use in your work.

Get Several Good Observation Essay Writing Tips

  1. Stay concise on the personal impression. Remember: the main goal of your personal paper is to ensure the reader’s experience will be enriched with your impressions.
  2. Get a notebook or mobile phone writing app to jot down every detail regarding your personal experience. A written word is more powerful than the one said before.
  3. Do not overload your observation essay with too many words; try to avoid wordiness by ignoring transitional & introductory words (try to limit their usage). Structure your thesis statement clearly by selecting only the most important words on the chosen topic.
  4. Apply several examples related to your topic by describing several situations you faced during the entire life in details. It helps the readers to get a wider picture as well as share your personal experience.
  5. An observation essay has a lot of common features with the descriptive narrative; play with five human senses. Make sure every page of your paper makes the reader taste, hear, smell, see, and even touch your topic.
  6. No matter what place or subject you describe, try to remain objective in order to make the readers trust you.
  7. Do not forget to insert quotes from the reliable primary sources. Mention all works with rights reserved on the last page called Bibliography.

Remember: it is necessary to share lessons learned in order to highlight the importance of your selected topic. You can find excellent observation essay examples online. If you feel your observation essay lacks something, or you want a professional writer to proofread & edit your paper, feel free to order online academic assistance from one of the most credible companies.

Enrich your outlook by getting involved in something completely new. Share your personal experience in your own words!

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