Background: Observation is used in research in two ways - structured and unstructured. Which of these methods to choose depends on the research question but will be defined predominantly by the paradigm underlying each study. Positivistic research generally uses structured observation and interpretist/naturalistic paradigms use unstructured observation. This paper is concerned with unstructured observation.
Aim: To discuss the importance of unstructured observation as a research method and to examine critically the problems associated with both access and field notes.
Application to nursing: Although unstructured observation has been used in nursing research, it is less favoured than the interview. Furthermore, although some of the dilemmas concerned with observation such as the role of the researcher, covert research and informed consent have received attention in the nursing literature, other aspects remain relatively unexplored. In particular little has been written concerning access to the field and field notes. Both of these aspects have practical and theoretical considerations that require the attention of the researcher. This omission may partly explain nurses' apparent reluctance to use unstructured observation in their studies. This paper seeks to redress this situation.