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11.1 Unobtrusive Research: What Is It and When to Use It?

Learning Objectives

  1. Define unobtrusive research.
  2. Define historical comparative research.

In this chapter, we explore unobtrusive methods of collecting data. Unobtrusive researchMethods of collecting data that don’t interfere with the subjects under study. refers to methods of collecting data that don’t 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 behavior, would employ a methodology that requires no interaction with human beings. But humans create plenty of evidence of their behaviors—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, they lie on the grass in public parks. All these activities leave something behind—worn paths, trash, recorded shows, and printed papers. 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 researchResearch that focuses on more than one location or time period. 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).Esterberg, K. G. (2002). Qualitative methods in social research. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill. 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. As an example, Melissa Weiner (2010)Weiner, M. (2010). Power, protest, and the public schools: Jewish and African American struggles in New York City. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press. used a historical comparative approach to study racial barriers historically experienced by Jews and African Americans in New York City public schools. Weiner analyzed public records from several years of newspapers, trial transcripts, and several organizations as well as private manuscript collections to understand how parents, children, and other activists responded to inequality and worked to reform schools. Not only did this work inform readers about the little-known similarities between Jewish and African American experiences, but it also informs current debates over inequalities experienced in public schools today.

Figure 11.2

Sociologist Melissa Weiner used historical comparative research to study racial barriers experienced by Jews and African Americans in New York City public schools.

In this chapter, we’ll examine content analysis as well as analysis of data collected by others. Both types of analysis have in common their use of 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’ll explore these similarities and differences in the following sections, after we look at some of the pros and cons of unobtrusive research methods.

Key Takeaways

  • Unobtrusive methods allow researchers to collect data without interfering with the subjects under study.
  • Historical comparative methods, which are unobtrusive, focus on changes in multiple cases over time or on more than one nation or society at a single point in time.


  1. What are some additional sources of unobtrusive data, aside from those already mentioned, that sociologists might take interest in examining?
  2. What locations might you like to compare in your own research? Are there changes that occur over time that you might be interested in exploring? Explain.