Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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Unobtrusive method

core definition

An unobtrusive method is one in which the data collection and analysis does not impinge on the subjects of the study.

explanatory context

Unobtrusive methods involve indirect data collection. The researcher makes no direct contact with the subject of study. This may involve observing people at a distance either in person or through recorded media, such as video; analysing mass media output, reanalysing statistical data, or even, in one case, examining the rubbish discarded by people as a means of estimating their life-style.

analytical review

Trochim (2006) wrote:

Unobtrusive measures are measures that don't require the researcher to intrude in the research context. Direct and participant observation require that the researcher be physically present. This can lead the respondents to alter their behavior in order to look good in the eyes of the researcher. A questionnaire is an interruption in the natural stream of behavior. Respondents can get tired of filling out a survey or resentful of the questions asked.

Unobtrusive measurement presumably reduces the biases that result from the intrusion of the researcher or measurement instrument. However, unobtrusive measures reduce the degree the researcher has control over the type of data collected. For some constructs there may simply not be any available unobtrusive measures.

Three types of unobtrusive measurement are discussed here... An indirect measure is an unobtrusive measure that occurs naturally in a research context. The researcher is able to collect the data without introducing any formal measurement procedure.....Content analysis is the analysis of text documents. The analysis can be quantitative, qualitative or both. Typically, the major purpose of content analysis is to identify patterns in text....Secondary analysis, like content analysis, makes use of already existing sources of data. However, secondary analysis typically refers to the re-analysis of quantitative data rather than text....

Crossman (2013) wrote:

In research, an unobtrusive measure is a method of making observations without the knowledge of those being observed. Unobtrusive measures are designed to minimize a major problem in social research, which is how a subject’s awareness of the research project affects behavior and distorts research results. The main drawback, however, is that there is a very limited range of information that can be gathered this way.

Lee (2000, pp. 1–2) wrote:

Webb et al. (1966) coined the term ‘unob- trusive 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 pre- sumed to avoid the problems caused by the researcher’s presence. Specific- ally, 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 of various kinds, and drawing on the written as well as the spoken voice, as they are by interviews and questionnaires.
Webb et al.’s (1966) book Unobtrusive Measures became something of a minor classic. (A revised version under the title Nonreactive Measures was published in 1981.) Humorous in tone and sceptical in its orientation to the dominant methodological practices of its time, Unobtrusive Measures is a delightful compendium of offbeat methods and data sources. (The book, in fact, had its origins in an informal seminar at Northwestern University in which it became a game to come up with novel methods (Campbell 1981: 481).) Among the examples of unobtrusive measures Webb et al. proffer are the use of wear on the floor tiles surrounding a museum exhibit showing hatching chicks to measure visitor flows; the size of suits of armour as an indicator of changes in human stature over time; and (tongue in cheek) the relationship between psychologists’ hair length and their methodological predilections. In all of this, of course, there is a serious purpose, a call to social researchers to think creatively about the sources and use of their data.


Bruce Berg (1998, pp. 117–78) listed public and private archives as well as erosion and accretion traces as the basis for unobtrusive methods and wrote:

To some extent, all the unobtrusive strategies amount to examining and assessing human traces. What people do, how they behave and structure of their daily lives, and even how humans are affected buy certain ideological stances can all be observed in traces people either intentionally or inadvertently leave behind. The more unusual types of unobtrusive studies are sometimes briefly highlighted in textbook descriptions of unobtrusive measures–just before dismissing these techniques in favour of measures regarded as more legitimate. For instance, it is fairly common to hear about how an investigator estimated the popularity of different radio stations in Chicago by having automobile mechanics Record the position of the radio dial in all the cars they serviced (Z–Frank, 1962)…

associated issues


related areas

See also




Berg, B.L., 1998, Qualitative Research Methods for the Social Sciences, Needham Heights, MA, Allyn and Bacon.

Campbell, D. T., 1981, 'Introduction: getting ready for the experimenting society', in Saxe, L. and Fine, M. (Eds.), Social Experiments: Methods for design and evaluation (pp. 13–18). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

Crossman, A., 2013, Unobtrusive Measure'' available at, accessed 11 May 2013, still available 15 June 2019.

Lee, R.M., 2000, Unobtrusive Methods in Social Research. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Trochim, W.M.K, 2006, 'Unobtrusive Measures', available at, accessed 11 May 2013, still available 15 June 2019.

Webb, E. J., Campbell, D. T., Schwartz, R. D. and Sechrest, L., 1966, Unobtrusive Measures: Nonreactive research in the social sciences. Chicago, IL: Rand McNally.
Webb, E. J., Campbell, D. T., Schwartz, R. D., Sechrest, L. and Grove, J. B., 1981, Nonreactive Measures in the Social Sciences. Dallas, TX: Houghton Mifflin.

Z- Frank stresses radio to build big Chevy dealership. 1962 Advertising Age 33, 83.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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