Observation is an information-gathering technique based on personal or recorded observation, through systematic documentation, of visible social activity and behavior. Observation techniques sometimes require participation in activities with the subjects being studied, which is called participant observation.

Observation and interviewing are the two basic methods used in ethnographic research.


Observing what is happening in and around an MPA provides managers with factual data and qualitative information as it is occurring. This gives managers a better understanding of who and what the users and uses are in any given area to help them make better and more informed management decisions.


  • Provides an objective view of social group dynamics and behaviors in different settings

  • Captures actions as they are actually occurring within their social context

  • Can adapt to events as they occur


  • Observer bias

  • Time-consuming

  • Not all activities or behaviors can be observed

  • Can be difficult to interpret seen behaviors

  • Can influence behaviors of program participants

Expertise Needed

Minimal expertise is needed to conduct basic observation research. However, some initial training is needed to conduct systematic observations. Additional skill is required to obtain accurate qualitative results.

Related Tools and Methods

The goal of ethnography is to obtain an in-depth understanding of the history, practices, values, traditions, and circumstances of the individuals, groups, and surrounding natural and cultural resources being studied. Research is focused on interactions within and among the groups. Ethnographic research requires the use of multiple methodologies, including secondary data research to get background information on the individuals or groups being studied, historical research, observation, and interviewing.
Interviews are a method of eliciting answers to predetermined questions from one individual at a time. This method is used for gathering specific pieces of data for information analysis.

Related Partners

NOAA is a federal agency focused on the condition of the oceans and the atmosphere. It plays several distinct roles within the Department of Commerce.

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