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What is Naturalistic Observation?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jan 27, 2024
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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.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By JessicaLynn — On May 03, 2012

It definitely seems like there are some naturalistic observation pros and cons. However, I would imagine that scientists probably use both naturalistic observation and experiments in labs to learn about different living organisms.

It seems like there are some things you can only learn using naturalistic observation, like the example in the article of breeding behavior. But there are some things you can only learn in a lab, which I guess would be anything that requires you to control the situation. It seems like you would have to use both methods to get an accurate idea about an organism.

By sunnySkys — On May 02, 2012

@Monika - Interesting question. I don't know what the answer is for professionals, but I did a study when I took cultural anthropology where I observed people in public. For the project, I wasn't required to tell people I was observing them and my professor never said anything about it being unethical.

However, anyone in the area could clearly see me sitting there with my notebook. So people definitely knew I was there, although they might not have known what I was doing. It was very interesting too, because I think I did change the environment just by being there. Some people definitely interacted with me while I was doing my observation.

By Monika — On May 02, 2012

I'm kind of interested in the idea of naturalistic observation of humans. According to the article, only overt methods of participant observation can be used in the observation of humans. I wonder if this means that the people being observed have to know they're being observed by someone, or if it just means that you can't hide cameras and stuff?

For example, I don't see the problem with a scientist or sociologist observing people in public without informing them they're doing a study or something. As long as they don't covertly record them, I don't think this would be unethical. There's not really much of an expectation of total privacy if you're in public!

By Oceana — On May 01, 2012

I wanted to be a scientist when I was little. My favorite part of science class was when I had to observe insects and small animals without disturbing them or letting them know I was there. I don’t think I knew it was called naturalistic observation at the time, though.

There was something so sneaky about the whole thing. I felt like a spy! I tried to blend in with the trees and bushes, and after I had been sitting still for awhile, the creatures started to come out and behave as they normally do.

I sat out there for a whole hour and just observed the activities of the squirrels, bees, butterflies, and birds. I learned a lot, and I took notes of everything interesting that happened.

By shell4life — On May 01, 2012

@wavy58 - I used to like watching those shows, too. What always drew me in was the fact that everything was totally unscripted.

With wild animals, there can be no acting or training them to do certain things. There was something blissfully simple about being able to just observe them in their natural state, totally unaware of any humans that might be watching them.

I don’t like it when people mess with nature. That’s why I love naturalistic observation. I also loved being able to do it from the safety of my living room!

By wavy58 — On Apr 30, 2012
Some of my favorite nature programs on television involved the use of naturalistic observation. The shows that featured dangerous animals, like tigers and bears, had to use covert observation, because had these animals known anyone was nearby, they would have attacked and possibly tried to eat the person.

Some of them are so dangerous that I have a feeling hidden cameras might have been set up prior to their arrival. I don’t think a whole lot of researchers would be brave enough to risk their lives in this way.

However, some of the shows had to have real cameramen involved. The cameras would sometimes follow the animals as they moved or chased prey, and that would not have been possible with hidden cameras.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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