Naturalistic observation is sometimes called field work or simply field observation (see Lofland, Snow, Anderson, & Lofland, 2006). In a naturalistic observation study, the researcher makes observations of individuals in their natural environments (the field). This research approach has roots in anthropology and the study of animal behavior and is currently widely used in the social sciences to study many phenomena in all types of social and organizational settings. Thus, you may encounter naturalistic observation studies that focus on employees in a business organization, members of a sports team, patrons of a bar, students and teachers in a school, or prairie dogs in a colony in Arizona.
Sylvia Scribner’s (1997) research on “practical thinking” is a good example of naturalistic observation research in psychology. Scribner studied ways that people in a variety of occupations make decisions and solve problems. She describes the process of this research: “… my colleagues and I have driven around on a 3 a.m. milk route, helped cashiers total their receipts and watched machine operators logging in their production for the day … we made detailed records of how people were going about performing their jobs. We collected copies of all written materials they read or produced—everything from notes scribbled on brown paper bags to computer printouts. We photographed devices in their working environment that required them to process other types of symbolic information—thermometers, gauges, scales, measurement instruments of all kinds” (Scribner, 1997, p. 223). One aspect of thinking that Scribner studied was the way that workers make mathematical calculations. She found that milk truck drivers and other workers make complex calculations that depend on their acquired knowledge. For example, a delivery invoice might require the driver to multiply 32 quarts of milk by $.68 per quart. To arrive at the answer, drivers use knowledge acquired on the job about how many quarts are in a case and the cost of a case; thus, they multiply 2 cases of milk by $10.88 per case. In general, the workers that Scribner observed employed complex but very efficient strategies to solve problems at work. More important, the strategies used could often not be predicted from formal models of problem solving. The Scribner research had a particular emphasis on people making decisions in their everyday environment. Scribner has since expanded her research to several different occupations and many types of decisions.
Other naturalistic research may examine a narrower range of behaviors. For example, Graham and her colleagues observed instances of aggression that Page 120occurred in bars in a large city late on weekend nights (Graham, Tremblay, Wells, Pernanen, Purcell, & Jelley, 2006). Both the Scribner and the Graham studies are instances of naturalistic research because the observations were made in natural settings and the researchers did not attempt to influence what occurred in the settings.