Phenomenology Online

A Resource for Phenomenological Inquiry

Observing Experiences

Observation or close observation is a more indirect method of collecting experiential material from others. For example, with young children, mentally handicapped, or very sick people it is often difficult to generate written descriptions or to engage in conversational interviewing.


“Close observation” is exactly what the phrase suggests. In contrast to the more experimental or behavioral observational research techniques, close observation tries to break through the distance often created by observational methods. The best way to enter a person’s lifeworld is to participate in it. For example, to gain access to the experience of young children, it may be important to play with them, talk with them, puppeteer, paint, draw, follow them into their play spaces and into the things they do while you remain attentively aware of the way it is for children. Naturally it is not only in situations with young children that close observation may be the preferred approach. “Close observation,” in the way that this term is used here, generates different forms of experiential material than we tend to obtain with the written or the interview approach.

However, as soon as this is said we should be cautious of a too simplistic interpretation of close observation as a variation of participant observation. Close observation involves an attitude of assuming a relation that is as close as possible while retaining a hermeneutic alertness to situations that allows us to constantly step back and reflect on the meaning of those situations. It is similar to the attitude of the author who is always on the look-out for stories to tell, incidents to remember. The method of close observation requires that one be a participant and an observer at the same time, that one maintains a certain orientation of reflectivity while guarding against the more manipulative and artificial attitude that a reflective attitude tends to insert in a social situation and relation.