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11.1: What Is It and When to Use It?

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    Learning Objectives

    • Define unobtrusive research.
    • Define historical comparative research.

    Why Unobtrusive Research?

    Are female and male athletes at the professional and college levels treated equally? You might think, 40 years since the passing of Title IX (the civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination in education including athletics) and with the growing visibility of women athletes in sports such as golf, basketball, hockey, and tennis, that the answer would be an easy yes. But Professor Michael Messner’s (2002)Messner, M. A. (2002). Taking the field: Women, men, and sports. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. unobtrusive research shows otherwise, as does Professors Jo Ann M. Buysse and Melissa Sheridan Embser-Herbert’s (2004)Buysse, J. A. M., & Embser-Herbert, M. S. (2004). Constructions of gender in sport: An analysis of intercollegiate media guide cover photographs. Gender & Society, 18, 66–81. content analysis of college athletics media guide photographs. In fact, Buysse and Embser-Herbert’s unobtrusive research shows that traditional definitions of femininity are fiercely maintained through colleges’ visual representations of women athletes as passive and overtly feminine (as opposed to strong and athletic). In addition, Messner and colleagues’ (Messner, Duncan, & Jensen, 1993)Messner, M. A., Duncan, M. C., & Jensen, K. (1993). Separating the men from the girls: The gendered language of televised sports. Gender & Society, 7, 121–137. content analysis of verbal commentary in televised coverage of men’s and women’s sports shows that announcers’ comments vary depending on an athlete’s gender identity. Such commentary not only infantilizes women athletes but also asserts an ambivalent stance toward their accomplishments.

    Without unobtrusive research we might be inclined to think that more has changed for women athletes over the past 40 years than actually has changed.

    In this chapter, we explore unobtrusive methods of collecting data. Unobtrusive research refers to methods of collecting data that don’t interfere with the subjects under study (because these methods are not obtrusive). Both qualitative and quantitative researchers use unobtrusive research methods. Unobtrusive methods share the unique quality that they do not require the researcher to interact with the people he or she is studying. It may seem strange that sociology, a discipline dedicated to understanding human social behavior, would employ a methodology that requires no interaction with human beings. But humans create plenty of evidence of their behaviors—they write letters to the editor of their local paper, they create various sources of entertainment for themselves such as movies and televisions shows, they consume goods, they walk on sidewalks, they lie on the grass in public parks. All these activities leave something behind—worn paths, trash, recorded shows, and printed papers. These are all potential sources of data for the unobtrusive researcher.

    Sociologists interested in history are likely to use unobtrusive methods, which are also well suited to comparative research. Historical comparative research is “research that focuses either on one or more cases over time (the historical part) or on more than one nation or society at one point in time (the comparative part)” (Esterberg, 2002, p. 129).Esterberg, K. G. (2002). Qualitative methods in social research. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill. While not all unobtrusive researchers necessarily conduct historical, comparative, or even some combination of historical and comparative work, unobtrusive methods are well suited to such work. As an example, Melissa Weiner (2010)Weiner, M. (2010). Power, protest, and the public schools: Jewish and African American struggles in New York City. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press. used a historical comparative approach to study racial barriers historically experienced by Jews and African Americans in New York City public schools. Weiner analyzed public records from several years of newspapers, trial transcripts, and several organizations as well as private manuscript collections to understand how parents, children, and other activists responded to inequality and worked to reform schools. Not only did this work inform readers about the little-known similarities between Jewish and African American experiences, but it also informs current debates over inequalities experienced in public schools today.

    In this chapter, we’ll examine content analysis as well as analysis of data collected by others. Both types of analysis have in common their use of data that do not require direct interaction with human subjects, but the particular type and source of data for each type of analysis differs. We’ll explore these similarities and differences in the following sections, after we look at some of the pros and cons of unobtrusive research methods.


    • Unobtrusive methods allow researchers to collect data without interfering with the subjects under study.
    • Historical comparative methods, which are unobtrusive, focus on changes in multiple cases over time or on more than one nation or society at a single point in time.


    1. What are some additional sources of unobtrusive data, aside from those already mentioned, that sociologists might take interest in examining?
    2. What locations might you like to compare in your own research? Are there changes that occur over time that you might be interested in exploring? Explain.

    11.1: What Is It and When to Use It? is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Anonymous via source content that was edited to conform to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.