Naturalistic observation is a form of research which is conducted by observing organisms in their natural environment. The observer takes meticulous notes and may also make recordings, and the period of observation can last for months or even years. There are a number of benefits to using this research method, along with some distinct advantages, although there are also some ethical issues and drawbacks which must be considered.
In naturalistic observation, the observer does not interfere with the environment at all, and may attempt to interact with the organisms as little as possible. The observer must remain neutral, not changing anything in the environment beyond the inevitable changes which occur as a result of the presence of an observer. No experiments are conducted, and intervention is generally not allowed.
Covert observation involves observation of a population without alerting the population to the presence of an observer. This technique is often preferred in animal populations, as animals may behave differently when they know that they are being watched. Covert techniques can include planting hidden recording devices and building structures for concealment which allow people to see without being seen. In overt observation, the observed is aware of the observer; in naturalistic observation of humans, for ethical reasons, only overt observation can be used.
One drawback to naturalistic observation is that researchers cannot manipulate, control, predict, or even fully understand variables. This can make it difficult to test and prove hypotheses, as experimental conditions cannot be set up. Another issue which can arise is the length of time it takes to conduct research, which can be a significant barrier for some researchers. It can be difficult to obtain support and funding when a project may take decades to complete.
A clear advantage to naturalistic observation is that it allows researchers to see the natural behavior of the organisms they are interested in. This can provide very valuable information which may influence future experimental research and contribute to understanding of how the organism lives in the wild. For example, naturalistic observation has been used to help conservation groups understand why some species of animals are so hard to breed in captivity, and to identify issues such as habitat restrictions which need to be considered when trying to preserve wild populations of rare species.
Naturalistic observation can also sometimes be the only way to collect data about some issues. For example, experiments on humans which could subject the humans to harm or put them at risk are not allowed. However, people can use this method to collect information about human populations which live in risky or harmful environments.