10.3 Unobtrusive data collected by the researcher

Learning Objectives

  • Define content analysis
  • Describe the kinds of texts that content analysts analyze
  • Describe the basics of analyzing unobtrusive data


This section focuses on how to gather data unobtrusively and what to do with those data once they have been collected. There are two main ways of gathering data unobtrusively: conducting a content analysis of existing texts and analyzing physical traces of human behavior. We’ll explore both approaches.

Content analysis

One way of conducting unobtrusive research is to analyze texts. Texts come in all kinds of formats. At its core, content analysis addresses the questions of “Who says what, to whom, why, how, and with what effect?” (Babbie, 2010, pp. 328–329). Content analysis is a type of unobtrusive research that involves the study of texts and their meaning. Here we use a more liberal definition of text than you might find in your dictionary. The text that content analysts investigate includes such things as actual written copy (e.g., newspapers or letters) and content that we might see or hear (e.g., speeches or other performances). Content analysts might also investigate more visual representations of human communication, such as television shows, advertisements, or movies. Table 10.1 provides a few specific examples of the kinds of data that content analysts have examined in prior studies. Which of these sources of data might be of interest to you?

Table 10.1 Content analysis examples
Data Research question Author(s) (year)
Spam e-mails What is the form, content, and quantity of unsolicited e- mails? Berzins (2009)
James Bond films How are female characters portrayed in James Bond films, and what broader lessons can be drawn from these portrayals? Neuendorf, Gore, Dalessandro, Janstova, and Snyder-Suhy (2010)
Console video games How is male and female sexuality portrayed in the best-selling console video games? Downs and Smith (2010)
Newspaper articles How do newspapers cover closed-circuit television surveillance in Canada, and what are the implications of coverage for public opinion and policymaking? Greenberg and Hier (2009)
Pro-eating disorder websites What are the features of pro-eating disorder websites, and what are the messages to which users may be exposed? Borzekowski, Schenk, Wilson, and Peebles (2010)

One thing you might notice about Table 10.1 is that the data sources represent primary sources. That is, they are the original documents written by people who observed the event or analyzed the data. Secondary sources, on the other hand, are sources that report on primary sources. Often, secondary sources are created by looking at primary sources and analyzing their contents.

Shulamit Reinharz (1992) offers a helpful way of distinguishing between these two types of sources in her methods text. She explains that while primary sources represent “the ‘raw’ materials of history,” secondary sources are “the ‘cooked’ analyses of those materials” (p. 155). The distinction between primary and secondary sources is important for many aspects of social science, but it is especially important to understand when conducting content analysis. While there are certainly instances of content analysis in which secondary sources are analyzed, it is more common for content analysts to analyze primary sources.

In those instances where secondary sources are analyzed, the researcher’s focus is usually on the process by which the original analyst or presenter of data reached his conclusions or on the choices that were made in terms of how and in what ways to present the data. For example, James Loewen (2007)  conducted a content analysis of high school history textbooks. His aim was not to learn about history, but to understand how students are taught American history in high school. The results of his inquiry uncovered that the books often glossed over issues of racism, leaving students with an incomplete understanding of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the extermination of Indigenous peoples, and the civil rights movement.

Sometimes students new to research methods struggle to grasp the difference between a content analysis of secondary sources and a literature review. In a literature review, researchers analyze theoretical, practical, and empirical sources to try to understand what we know and what we don’t know about a particular topic. The sources used to conduct a scholarly review of the literature are typically peer-reviewed sources, written by trained scholars, published in some academic journal or press. These sources are culled in a literature review to arrive at some conclusion about our overall knowledge about a topic. Findings from sources are generally taken at face value.

Conversely, a content analysis of scholarly literature would raise questions not addressed in a literature review. A researcher who uses content analyst to examine scholarly articles would try to learn something about the authors (e.g., who publishes what and where), publication outlets (e.g., how well do different journals represent the diversity of the discipline), or topics (e.g., how has the popularity of topics shifted over time). A content analysis of scholarly articles would be a “study of the studies” as opposed to a “review of studies.” Perhaps, for example, a researcher wishes to know whether more men than women authors are published in the top-ranking journals in the discipline. The researcher could conduct a content analysis of different journals and count authors by gender (though this may be a tricky prospect if relying only on names to indicate gender). Or perhaps a researcher would like to learn whether or how various topics of investigation go in and out of style. She could investigate changes over time in topical coverage in various journals. In these latter two instances, the researcher is not aiming to summarize the content of the articles, as in a literature review, but instead is looking to learn something about how, why, or by whom particular articles came to be published.

Content analysis can be qualitative or quantitative, and often researchers will use both strategies to strengthen their investigations. In qualitative content analysis, the aim is to identify themes in the text being analyzed and to identify the underlying meaning of those themes. For example, Alyssa Goolsby (2007) conducted qualitative content analysis in her study of national identity in the United States. To understand how the boundaries of citizenship were constructed in the United States, she conducted a qualitative content analysis of key historical congressional debates focused on immigration law.

Quantitative content analysis, on the other hand, involves assigning numerical values to raw data so that it can be analyzed statistically. Jason Houle (2008) conducted a quantitative content analysis of song lyrics. Inspired by an article on the connections between fame, chronic self- consciousness (as measured by frequent use of first-person pronouns), and self-destructive behavior (Schaller, 1997),  Houle counted first-person pronouns in Elliott Smith song lyrics. Houle found that Smith’s use of self-referential pronouns increased steadily from the time of his first album release in 1994 until his suicide in 2003.  We’ll elaborate on how qualitative and quantitative researchers collect, code, and analyze unobtrusive data in the final portion of this section.

Indirect measures

Texts are not the only sort of data that researchers can collect unobtrusively. Unobtrusive researchers might also be interested in analyzing the evidence that humans leave behind that tells us something about who they are or what they do. This kind evidence includes the physical traces left by humans and the material artifacts that tell us something about their beliefs, values, or norms. Physical traces include such things as worn paths across campus, the materials in a landfill or in someone’s trash can, indentations in furniture, or empty shelves in the grocery store. Examples of material artifacts include video games and video game equipment, sculptures, mementos left on gravestones, housing structures, flyers for an event, or even kitchen utensils.

One challenge with analyzing physical traces and material artifacts is that you generally don’t have access to the people who left the traces or created the artifacts that you are analyzing. (And if you did find a way to contact them, then your research would no longer qualify as unobtrusive!) It can be especially tricky to analyze meanings of these materials if they come from some historical or cultural context other than your own. Situating the traces or artifacts you wish to analyze both in their original contexts and in your own is not always easy and can lead to problems during data analysis. How do you know that you are viewing an object or physical trace in the way that it was intended to be viewed? Do you have the necessary understanding or knowledge about the background of its original creators or users to understand where they were coming from when they created it?

Imagine an alien trying to understand some aspect of Western human culture simply by examining our artifacts. Cartoonist Mark Parisi (1989) demonstrates the misunderstanding that could ensue in his drawing featuring three very small aliens standing atop a toilet. One alien says, “Since water is the life-blood on this planet, this must be a temple of some sort…Let’s stick around and see how they show their respect” (1989). Without a contextual understanding of Western human culture, the aliens misidentified the purpose of the toilet, and they will be in for quite a surprise when someone shows up to use it!

The point is that while physical traces and material artifacts make excellent sources of data, analyzing their meaning takes more than simply trying to understand them from your own contextual position. This can be challenging, but the good news is that social workers have been trained in cultural humility, and they strive for cultural competence.  This means they recognize that their own cultural lenses may not provide accurate perspectives on situations.  Social work researchers using physical traces and material artifacts must be aware of who caused the physical trace or created the artifact, when they created it, why they created, and for whom they created it. Answering these questions requires accessing materials in addition to the traces or artifacts themselves, such as historical documents or, if analyzing a contemporary trace or artifact, perhaps using another method of data collection such as interviews with its creators.


Key Takeaways

  • Content analysts interpret texts.
  • The texts that content analysts analyze include actual written texts such as newspapers or journal entries, as well as visual and auditory sources such as television shows, advertisements, or movies.
  • Content analysts most typically analyze primary sources, though in some instances they may analyze secondary sources.
  • Indirect measures that content analysts examine include physical traces and material artifacts.
  • Content analysts may use code sheets to collect data.



  • Content analysis- a type of unobtrusive research that involves the study of texts and their meaning



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

Foundations of Social Work Research Copyright © 2020 by Rebecca L. Mauldin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book