10.2 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. As we discussed in Chapter 8, researchers often, as a result of their presence, have an impact on the participants in their study simply because they measure and observe them.  This effect is a type of reactivity threat to internal validity called the Hawthorne effect.  As an example, compare how you would behave at work if you knew someone was watching you versus when you knew you were alone.  Because researchers conducting unobtrusive research do not alert participants to their presence, they do not need to be concerned about the effect of their research on their subjects. 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’ve discussed. Because “participants” are generally inanimate objects (e.g., web journal entries, television shows, historical speeches) 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 textbook. 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? 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. 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 suitable ways of gathering such information, they cannot examine processes that occurred decades before data collection began. 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 of participants, which may be subject to errors in memory.

In summary, the strengths of unobtrusive research include the following:

  • There is no possibility for the Hawthorne effect.
  • It is cost-effective.
  • It is easier than other methods to correct mistakes in data collection.
  • They are 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. 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 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 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- a threat to internal validity in which participants in a study behave differently because they know they are being observed


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