Chapter 13: Unobtrusive Research: Qualitative And Quantitative Approaches

13.1 Strengths of Unobtrusive Research

Researchers who seek evidence of what people actually do, as opposed to what they say they do in survey and interview research, might wish to consider using unobtrusive methods. Field researchers may also claim this advantage over interview and survey research, but field researchers cannot be certain about what effect their presence in the field may have on the people and the interactions that they observe. While unobtrusive research projects, like all research projects, face the risk of introducing researcher bias into the work, researchers employing unobtrusive methods do not need to be concerned about the effect of the research on their subjects. This effect, known as the Hawthorne effect, is not a concern for unobtrusive researchers because they do not interact directly with their research participants. In fact, this is one of the major strengths of unobtrusive research.

Another benefit of unobtrusive research is that it can be relatively low-cost compared to some of the other methods we have discussed. Because participants are generally inanimate objects as opposed to human beings, researchers may be able to access data without having to worry about paying participants for their time (though certainly travel to or access to some documents and archives can be costly).

Unobtrusive research is also forgiving. What this means is that it is far easier to correct mistakes made in data collection when conducting unobtrusive research than when using any of the other methods described in this text. Imagine what you would do, for example, if you realized at the end of conducting 50 in-depth interviews that you had accidentally omitted two critical questions from your interview guide. What are your options? Re-interview all 50 participants? Try to figure out what they might have said based on their other responses? Reframe your research question? Scratch the project entirely? Obviously none of these options is ideal. The same problems arise if a mistake is made in survey research. For field researchers, the consequences of “messing up” during data collection can be even more disastrous. Imagine discovering after tagging along on a political candidate’s campaign that you needed to re-do aspects of the field research. In many cases, such as this one, that simply is not an option. The campaign is over, and you would need to find a new source of data. Fortunately for unobtrusive researchers, going back to the source of the data to gather more information or correct some problem in the original data collection is a relatively straightforward prospect.

Finally, unobtrusive research is well suited to studies that focus on processes that occur over time. While longitudinal surveys and long-term field observations are also suitable ways of gathering such information, they cannot examine processes that occurred decades before data collection began, nor are they the most cost-effective ways to examine long-ranging processes. Unobtrusive methods, on the other hand, enable researchers to investigate events and processes that have long since passed. They also do not rely on retrospective accounts, which may be subject to errors in memory, as some longitudinal surveys do.