14.2 Strengths and weaknesses of unobtrusive research

Learning Objectives

  • Identify the major strengths of unobtrusive research
  • Identify the major weaknesses of unobtrusive research
  • Define the Hawthorne effect


As is true of the other research designs examined in this text, unobtrusive research has a number of strengths and weaknesses.

Strengths of unobtrusive research

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. The presence of researchers during a study often impacts the participants simply because the researcher measures and observes them. For example, compare how you would behave at work if you knew someone was watching you versus a time when you knew you were alone. Researchers conducting unobtrusive research do not alert participants to their presence, so they 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.


man sitting on bench looking at a street

Another benefit of unobtrusive research is that it can be relatively low-cost compared to some of the other methods we’ve discussed. The “participants” are generally inanimate objects (e.g., web journal entries, television shows, historical speeches) as opposed to human beings, so researchers may be able to access data without worrying about paying participants for their time (though certainly travel to or access to some documents and archives can be costly).

Unobtrusive research methods are also very 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 textbook. Imagine what you would do if you realized that you’d accidentally omitted two critical questions from your interview guide after you’ve successfully conducted 50 in-depth interviews. What are your options? Would you re-interview all 50 participants? Would you try to figure out what they might have said based on their other responses, reframe your research question, or scratch the project entirely? Obviously, none of these options are ideal. The same problems arise if a mistake is made in survey research. 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 the previous section, 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 effective ways to gather such information, they can neither 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:

  • There is no possibility for the Hawthorne effect.
  • The method is cost-effective.
  • It is easier in unobtrusive research than with other methods to correct mistakes.
  • Unobtrusive methods are conducive to examining processes that occur over time or in the past.

Weaknesses of unobtrusive research

While there are many benefits to unobtrusive research, this method also comes with a unique set of drawbacks. Unobtrusive researchers analyze data that may have been created or gathered for purposes entirely different from the researcher’s aim. Therefore, they are sometimes subject to problems of validity. In addition, data sources to measure the researcher’s chosen phenomenon simply may 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 to account for context in an unobtrusive research project. In an interview, for example, the researcher can ask what events lead up to some occurrence, but this level of personal interaction is impossible in unobtrusive research. So, while it can be difficult to ascertain why something occurred in unobtrusive research, we can gain a good understanding of what has occurred.

In sum, the weaknesses of unobtrusive research include the following:

  • There may be potential problems with validity.
  • The topics or questions that can be investigated are limited by data availability.
  • It can be difficult to see or account for social context.


Key Takeaways

  • Unobtrusive research is cost effective and allows for easier correction of mistakes than other methods of data collection do.
  • The Hawthorne effect, which occurs when research subjects alter their behaviors because they know they are being studied, is not a risk in unobtrusive research as it is in other methods of data collection.
  • Weaknesses of unobtrusive research include potential problems with validity, limitations in data availability, and difficulty in accounting for social context.



Hawthorne effect- participants in a study will behave differently because they know they are being observed


Image attributions

man paris traffic by whitfieldink CC-0



Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Scientific Inquiry in Social Work Copyright © 2018 by Matthew DeCarlo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book