Research Methods for Information Research

4. Observation

4.0 Systematic observation as a research method

Alexander Kelly once claimed that all social science research amounts to variations on three techniques – observation, asking people questions and drawing inferences from the products of people’s activities. If this is true, it is surprising that information research borrows heavily on two of these approaches but largely neglects systematic observation as a research method. The most recent large scale observation-based information research study in the UK that I am aware of (and worked on) was completed in 1980. Even smaller scale research tends to gravitate towards the questionnaire and the focus group, almost regardless of the research aims.

The relative neglect of systematic observation as a research method is unfortunate because this can be the best way to illuminate complex situations. In the case of the ancient research project just mentioned (which was looking at information needs and information services in English social services departments)8 it was striking that, although the project also entailed a questionnaire survey and 144 structured interviews, all of the ideas about enhancement of information communication and better service provision generated through the project emerged during the observation phase.

Large scale systematic observation is expensive and time-consuming but there are a number of variations on the theme that should be well within the compass of many libraries and information services, and should prove stimulating for research students.

8. STREATFIELD, D.R. and WILSON, T.D. The vital link: information in social services departments London: Community Care and the Joint Unit for Social Services Research 1980; WILSON, T.D. and others You can observe a lot… A study of information use in local authority social services departments conducted by Project INISS Sheffield: Postgraduate School of Librarianship and Information Science, University of Sheffield 1980, available at