Unobtrusive Methods in Social Research

Unobtrusive Methods in Social Research

Unobtrusive Methods in Social Research

Unobtrusive Methods in Social Research


a book all self-respecting social researchers should read SRA News

• What are unobtrusive methods in social research?

• How are they undertaken and what are their advantages?

• What are the problems associated with their use?

Webb et al's 1966 classic, Unobtrusive Methods introduced the concept of unobtrusive research. Since then very little else has been written in the field. This book revisits the ground covered by Webb et al, re-contextualizing it for the information age and putting the case for an increased use of unobtrusive methods.

Unobtrusive Methods in Social Research provides an updated discussion of the role of unobtrusive methods in social research. It explores the theoretical underpinnings of Webb et al's approach in order to understand more explicitly how unobtrusive methods are generated and examines some of the wider ethical issues raised by the use of unobtrusive methods in social research. In addition, it offers a discussion of using the Internet as a tool for unobtrusive research.

Unobtrusive Methods in Social Research is a worthy successor to Webb et al. It is up to date, comprehensive and clearly written. It will help undergraduates to understand what has become a standard topic on research methods courses and it is hoped that it will encourage postgraduate students and professionals to make more use of unobtrusive methods in their research.


Allan Kellehear has written: ‘There is today, in social science circles, a simple and persistent belief that knowledge about people is available simply by asking.’ He goes on, ‘We ask people about themselves, and they tell us … the assumption is that important “truths” about people are best gained through talk – a sometimes direct, sometimes subtle, interrogation of experience, attitude and belief (Kellehear 1993: 1). A problem with this assumption is that what we gain ‘simply by asking’ is often shaped by the dynamics surrounding the interaction between researcher and researched. This is so because the act of eliciting data from respondents or informants can itself affect the character of the responses obtained. One consequence of this might be a need to accomplish the ‘interrogation of experience, attitude and belief in other, less direct, ways. Webb et al. (1966) coined the term ‘unobtrusive measures’ to refer to data gathered by means that do not involve direct elicitation of information from research subjects. Unobtrusive measures are ‘non-reactive’ (Webb et al. 1981) in the sense that they are presumed to avoid the problems caused by the researcher’s presence. Specifically, Webb et al. advocate that social researchers should devote more attention to sources of data such as physical traces (the evidence people leave behind them in various ways as they traverse their physical environment), non-participant observation, and the use of documentary sources. In other words, questions about experience, attitude and belief might be addressed just as effectively by watching what people do, looking at physical evidence . . .

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