This is “Pros and Cons of Unobtrusive Research”, section 11.2 from the book Sociological Inquiry Principles: Qualitative and Quantitative Methods (v. 1.0). For details on it (including licensing), click here.
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As is true of the other research types examined in this text, unobtrusive research has a number of strengths and several weaknesses.
Researchers who seek evidence of what people actually do, as opposed to what they say they do (as 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 biasBias that occurs when the preconceptions of a researcher—either intentionally or, more typically, unintentionally—shape her or his findings. 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 effectA situation that occurs when research subjects, either intentionally or unintentionally, alter their behaviors because they know they are being studied., 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’ve 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 pretty forgiving. 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’d accidentally omitted two critical questions from your interview guide. What are your options? Reinterview 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 a “do-over.” In this case, that simply isn’t an option. The campaign is over, and you’d 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, as described in Section 11.1 "Unobtrusive Research: What Is It and When to Use It?", 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.
In sum, the strengths of unobtrusive research include the following:
While there are many benefits to unobtrusive research, this method also comes with a unique set of drawbacks. Because unobtrusive researchers analyze data that may have been created or gathered for purposes entirely different from the researcher’s aim, problems of validity sometimes arise in such projects. It may also be the case that data sources measuring whatever a researcher wishes to examine simply do not exist. This means that unobtrusive researchers may be forced to tweak their original research interests or questions to better suit the data that are available to them. Finally, it can be difficult in unobtrusive research projects to account for context. In a field research project, for example, the researcher is able to see what events lead up to some occurrence and observe how people respond to that occurrence. What this means for unobtrusive research is that while it can be difficult to ascertain why something occurred, we can gain a good understanding of what has occurred.
In sum, the weaknesses of unobtrusive research include the following:
Want to see the Hawthorne effect in action? Check out this totally nonscientific yet wholly entertaining application of the principle from Korea:
What evidence of the Hawthorne effect do you see in the video?