Potential Sources of Observer Bias and the Face Validity of Observational Data

Richard J. Spano, University of Alabama

In order to address criticisms about the validity of observational data, anecdotal accounts of problems encountered in the field were categorized as four potential sources of observer bias. Observer bias can be categorized as threats to the validity of observational data collected at different stages of field research. Three types of observer bias are also used to illustrate the potential for human error implicit in the collection of observational data. Anecdotal evidence from a variety of field settings is overviewed to point out contradictory accounts of: (1) the direction of behavioral change caused by reactivity; and (2) the impact of rapport on the accuracy of observational data. Key concepts for each type of observer bias are specified as a first step toward operationalizing observer effects. Finally, the incorporation of a semi-structured field diary is suggested in order to incorporate measures of observer bias into the research design of observational studies.

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Updated 05/20/2006