Writing A Research Paper With Observational Data

In participant observation, the researcher intervenes in the environment. Most commonly, this refers to inserting himself/herself as a member of a group, aimed at observing behavior that otherwise would not be accessible. Also, behaviors remain relatively natural, thereby giving the measurements high external validity. Case Studies are a type of observational research that involve a thorough descriptive analysis of a single individual, group, or event. They can be designed along the lines of both nonparticipant and participant observation. Both approaches create new data, while archival research involves the analysis of data that already exist. A hypothesis is generated and then tested by analyzing data that have already been collected. This is a useful approach when one has access to large amounts of information collected over long periods of time. Such databases are available, for example, in longitudinal research that collects information from the same individuals over many years.
Special qualitative analysis software tools like ATLAS.ti help the researcher to catalog, penetrate and analyze the data generated (or, in archival research found) in a given research project. All forms of observational or field research benefit extensively from the special capabilities of a dedicated data anlaysis tool like ATLAS.ti.

In some cases, research requires traveling. Is this the case in your project? On the one hand, you might want to observe people in a natural setting: at their own home, in shops, in classrooms, or in offices. On the other hand, people might not be healthy enough to travel to your lab. Observational research can be carried out on-site, however, there are some factors you need to take into consideration, such as lighting conditions, camera position, and voice recording. Most importantly, is everybody on-site in agreement about the video recordings or the direct observations? Here you can read two examples of on-site observational studies involving elderly people as participants. No matter what kind of research question you wish to answer, performing on-site research has both limitations and advantages compared to lab studies. Read on to learn more!

  1. Measuring engagement in people with advanced dementia

  2. Measuring eating behavior in elderly people

Engagement in people with advanced dementia

In order to study behavior in residential care homes, researchers had to bring their lab to the premises. In addition to it being convenient for the participants, an on-site study enables researchers to take environmental factors into account.

Cruz et al. from the University of Aveiro and the research unit UniFAI (Portugal) designed a pilot study to measure engagement in meaningful activities, because engaging in activities improves the quality of life of those suffering from dementia. Engagement is explained as: “the act of being occupied or involved with an external stimulus” (Cohen-Mansfield et al. 2009). It is fundamentally different from just attending the activity. To measure activity instead of attendance Cruz et al. included behavioral observations in their study.  

This pilot study was conducted in Portugal, in a care home for elderly people. The researchers made use of video recordings allowing them to review the activities as often as necessary. They selected video recording over direct observation to ensure the capture of all important information. Cruz et al. described their on-site preparations:

In each session, researchers fastened the video camera to a top of a tripod and turned it on just before the session started. The camera was placed in a specific location in the room where it would not interfere with participants’ movements and enabled video recording of all participants, including their faces.

In order to observe behavior in a structured way, the authors described behavioral categories and designed an ethogram. For example, they coded verbal communication, interaction with objects, and engagement in the task. The Observer XT coding and analysis software enabled the researchers to calculate and compare frequencies and durations of specific behaviors. Only 4 out of the 13 residents, for various reasons, participated in the study. Although this is a small number, it gave the researchers the opportunity to test their on-site study design and the activity program. The full article, results of this pilot study, and recommendations for further research made by the authors can be found in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease & Other Dementias.

Food intake in nursing homes

Several pilot studies were conducted in the Inside Consumer Experience research project. This consortium aimed to develop novel instruments and mobile services for the objective measurement of food selection and consumption in real-life contexts such as nursing homes or dance festivals. The pilot study presented here was carried out in two nursing homes in The Netherlands. One of the nursing homes was designated as the experimental location and the other as the control location. At both locations, the researchers installed thirteen cameras for recording behavior during dinnertime in order to assess food intake. A number of changes were implemented for the experimental group, such as a change in meal preparation with at least 60% organic products, more social interaction between participants and staff members, and the overall ambiance was improved (furnishing of the dining rooms, the way the meals were presented, etc.). The results from this pilot study showed that food intake increased in the experimental group. In this pilot study, the researchers could have invited people to a restaurant lab or to a University facility, however, inviting people to another facility simply would not have worked. Since the researchers wanted to measure the effect of changing situations on food intake in a real-life context, on-site research was the perfect answer to answering their research questions. To read more about pilot design and the results, please visit www.ice-project.org.

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Also interested in lab studies? The research area of clinical communication has over the last thirty years grown both in the number of publications and in importance in health research. More and more elderly people are asked to participate. On-site research has both limitations and advantages compared to lab studies. Read on to learn more! Download the free case study and learn:

  • How to acquire rich and meaningful data in a lab
  • How to set up research in clinical communication
  • How to work with video, data acquisition equipment and analysis software


  • Cruz, J.; Marques, A.; Barbosa, A.; Figueiredo, D.; Sousa, L.X. (2013). Making sense(s) in dementia : a multisensory and motor-based group activity program. American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias, doi:10.1177/1533317512473194.
  • Cohen-Mansfield, J.; Dakheel-Ali, M.; Marx, M.S. (2009). Engagement in persons with dementia: the concept and its measurement. American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry,17 (4), 299-307.
  • http://www.ice-project.org

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