Unobtrusive Methods

flickr photo by ianguest shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Interviews, focus groups, surveys (to some extent), observations and action research are the meat and two veg of social research. They were of course some of the methods I considered (and discarded) after establishing my research questions, considering my epistemological position and crafting a methodological approach. Having decided on an ethnography, largely digital, it became apparent that some of the methods I’d employ might be conducted is a less ‘reactive’ way. I’d be attending to the traces that people leave behind, whether they be tweets, blog posts or other artefacts that contribute to the world wide web. These are the stuff of Unobtrusive Methods (Lee, 2000).
They may be conventional in the form of text, images and other similar artefacts; or somewhat less conventional – worn paths, discarded waste, hair styles!

As one volume of several in the ‘Understanding Social Research’ series, Lee builds on the foundations laid by Webb et al (1966), taking much of the structure and form. Although the updated (2000) version of Webb et al chooses to remain faithful to the original and ignores the Internet, Lee however, gives some consideration to how the Internet might provide a useful source for unobtrusive methods. At the time of publication, the Internet was not what it is now; social media had yet to appear on the scene, as indeed had Web 2.0. Nevertheless, the immediate and obvious advantage for the unobtrusive researcher was the amount of data which stuck around, rather than being much more transient, as data in the offline world often was. The methods advocated could be classified as those which capture activity (what is being done, e.g. browsing history), those exploring content (what is being produced, e.g. home pages) or those analysing interactions (who in connecting with whom e.g. email exchanges in organisations). At the time, ethics involving Internet research was still in its infancy, but had begun to tackle the issues of private-public and consent.

Why use unobtrusive methods?

Despite clearly manifest ethical concerns, unobtrusive research is still worth considering for the advantages it brings:

  • It minimises reactivity i.e. changes in behaviour of participants
  • Participants might also wish to portray themselves in a different light, or provide answers to please the researcher. Unobtrusive methods sidestep that.
  • It is non-intrusive, placing no demands on potential participants.

However, Lee argues not for unobtrusive methods instead of more intrusive ones, but as complementary to them. The fallibilities of different methods are different, so by seeking variety, we’re better able to triangulate our data.

What unobtrusive methods are.

Lee, faithfully following Webb et al, suggests four classes of data, or perhaps techniques through which the data may be sourced:

  • Found data: traces left behind that researchers are able to find and interpret. Two types are identified: ‘erosion,’ where there is a physical loss or diminution e.g. garden space given over to paving; and ‘accretion,’ where there is an increase in some physical manifestation e.g. graffiti. Controlled accretion is when you set deliberately set something up which will you hope will grow (accrete).
  • Captured data: ‘simple’ passive, nonintrusive observation of situations. These may be of physical signs, expressive movement, physical location, in situ (overheard) conversations and time-related behaviour.
  • Retrieved data (running records): data generated as part of some ongoing, continuous process. These permit the gathering of longitudinal data and exploration of trends over time.
  • Retrieved data (personal and episodic records): these are discontinuous forms of data – letters, diaries and family albums. In the public realm, we have legislation, art and commerce for example.

One message I certainly took away from my reading was to embrace the unconventional; to look for unusual sources of data which conventional approaches might overlook. Garbology for example; what people have owned and discarded speaks about their lives and the societies within which they live … if you’re capable of interpreting it!

Unobtrusive methods in my study

Some of the methods I’m proposing in my pilot (see ethics 2) are unobtrusive, but perhaps follow convention. Ought I to be open to other possibilities? Perhaps there are proxies which provide evidence of teacher learning that I’d never even considered? What traces have been left behind equivalent to worn paths? Where is the graffiti and what does it say? Where are the rubbish heaps to pick over?

My point of entry remains Twitter; does that offer unobtrusive potential? I’d always intended to pick apart the architecture of Twitter to see how different elements might support professional learning, but I hadn’t yet considered that from a different perspective. Rather than what those elements enable you to do, but how they might actually be a source of data. Favourites/Likes for example (see A ‘like’ly story) might be considered not only from the way they allow (encourage?) you to act and what they allow you to do, but the favourites themselves might serve as a record worthy of examination – an ‘accreting’ source of found data.

I’d always intended it likely that I’d be led outwards from Twitter; to blog posts for example. Until reading Lee, I’d not thought much beyond that. One of the behaviours within Twitter that might be associated with learning is linking to other resources. This is sometimes to other curated content in the form of Diigo bookmarks, Scoop-ed content or Pinterest posts. In addition to that being examined as sharing behaviour, might the content held in those sites constitute ‘episodic’ (or ‘running?’) data and be analysed in their own right? Tweets themselves are often Storify-ed; does the personal way in which the tweets have been arranged constitute a different data source from the original tweets and thereby encourage a different interpretation? People often use Twitter to crowdsource learning resources. Tom Barrett’s ‘Interesting Ways’ series being a case in point; more accreted data? TeachMeets have been supported by the TeachMeet wiki now for over six years and contains more than 2000 pages which of course have an associated chronological heritage maintained by the wiki history. What ‘found’ stories might be held therein I wonder?

More than anything, Unobtrusive Methods helped me maintain an open mind about where I might be drawn in seeking data. I’d argue the actor-network sensibility I intend to bring, not only supports that approach, but perhaps even demands it?


HINE, Christine (2011). Internet research and unobtrusive methods. [online]. Social research update, (61), 1.
LEE, Raymond M., (2000). Unobtrusive methods in social research. Buckingham England], Open University Press.
WEBB, E. L. et al (1966). Unobtrusive measures : nonreactive research in the social sciences. Rand McNally College Publishing Co.

One thought on “Unobtrusive Methods

  1. Following a Qualitative Research Module session last night, it’s become clear I’m taking an ethnographic approach, rather than conducting an ethnography. The latter has specific elements which define it including a focus on culture and the use of narrative style in the output, neither of which I’m currently considering … although who knows how things might unfold!


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