Chapter 13: Unobtrusive Research: Qualitative And Quantitative Approaches

Learning Objectives

  • Define unobtrusive research methods and explain when it is suitable to employ this type of research method.
  • Outline the benefits and the drawbacks of using unobtrusive research methods.
  • Define the Hawthorne effect.
  • Explain the difference between primary and secondary data sources.
  • Explain the various methods for conducting unobtrusive research.
  • Describe some of the advantages and disadvantages of analyzing other people’s data.
  • Describe three measures of reliability in unobtrusive research.
  • Define ethnomethodology and conversation analysis.

Unobtrusive research refers to methods of collecting data that do not interfere with the subjects under study (because these methods are not obtrusive). Both qualitative and quantitative researchers use unobtrusive research methods. Unobtrusive methods share the unique quality that they do not require the researcher to interact with the people he or she is studying. It may seem strange that sociology, a discipline dedicated to understanding human social behaviour, would employ a methodology that requires no interaction with human beings. However, humans create plenty of evidence of their behaviours: they write letters to the editor of their local paper; they create various sources of entertainment for themselves, such as movies and televisions shows; they consume goods; they walk on sidewalks; and they lie on the grass in public parks. All these activities leave something behind: printed papers, recorded shows, trash, and worn paths. These are all potential sources of data for the unobtrusive researcher.

Sociologists interested in history are likely to use unobtrusive methods, which are also well suited to comparative research. Historical comparative research is “research that focuses either on one or more cases over time (the historical part) or on more than one nation or society at one point in time (the comparative part)” (Esterberg, 2002, p. 129). While not all unobtrusive researchers necessarily conduct historical, comparative, or even some combination of historical and comparative work, unobtrusive methods are well suited to such work.

In this chapter, we will examine content analysis as well as analysis of data collected by others. Both types of analysis use data that do not require direct interaction with human subjects, but the particular type and source of data for each type of analysis differs. We will explore these similarities and differences in the following sections, after we look at some of the pros and cons of unobtrusive research methods.

As is true of the other research types we have examined thus far, unobtrusive research has both strengths and weaknesses.


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