Systematic observation refers to the careful observation of one or more specific behaviors in a particular setting. This research approach is much less global than naturalistic observation research. The researcher is interested in only a few very specific behaviors, the observations are quantifiable, and the researcher frequently has developed prior hypotheses about the behaviors. We will focus on systematic observation in naturalistic settings; these techniques may also be applied in laboratory settings.
For example, Bakeman and Brownlee (1980; also see Bakeman, 2000) were interested in the social behavior of young children. Three-year-olds were videotaped in a room in a “free play” situation. Each child was taped for 100 minutes; observers viewed the videotapes and coded each child’s behavior every 15 seconds, using the following coding system:
Unoccupied: Child is not doing anything in particular or is simply watching other children.
Solitary play: Child plays alone with toys but is not interested in or affected by the activities of other children.
Together: Child is with other children but is not occupied with any particular activity.
Parallel play: Child plays beside other children with similar toys but does not play with the others.
Group play: Child plays with other children, including sharing toys or participating in organized play activities as part of a group of children.
Bakeman and Brownlee were particularly interested in the sequence or order in which the different behaviors were engaged in by the children. They found, for example, that the children rarely went from being unoccupied to engaging in parallel play. However, they frequently went from parallel to group play, indicating that parallel play is a transition state in which children decide whether to interact in a group situation.
Numerous behaviors can be studied using systematic observation. The researcher must decide which behaviors are of interest, choose a setting in which the behaviors can be observed, and most important, develop a coding system, such as the one described, to measure the behaviors. Rhoades and Stocker (2006) describe the use of the Marital Interaction Video Coding System. Couples are recorded for 10 minutes as they discuss an area of conflict; they then discuss a positive aspect of their relationship for 5 minutes. The video is later coded for hostility and affection displayed during each 5 minutes of the interaction. To code hostility, the observers rated the frequency of behaviors such as Page 124“blames other” and “provokes partner.” Affection behaviors that were coded included “expresses concern” and “agrees with partner.”