Ethical Issues:

Unobtrusive studies raise serious ethical problems. Some research cannot proceed if the observed know of the study and have to give informed consent.

In planning unobtrusive studies, the researcher and the human subject protection committee that reviews the plan must assess the subjects’ risks and the researchers’ ability to protect their confidentiality.

Sometimes field researchers have to go to court to protect their field notes. One example involves a sociology student named Mario Brajuha who had been working and observing in a restaurant that later burned down (Thaler, 1985). A New York State grand jury demanded to see his notes for an arson investigation, but he refused.


The court dismissed the case against Brajuha after the state accepted an edited version of his research journal. However, the Brajuha case did not settle the right of qualitative researchers to protect their data.

In a later case, a U.S. District Court held in contempt a graduate student named James Scarce for refusing to reveal information given him in confidence by animal rights activists.

Scarce was studying these activists as part of a long-term project on radical social movements, and a federal grand jury wanted his information for their investigation of break-ins at university laboratories.

The American Sociological Association supported Mr. Scarce by providing a friend of the court brief arguing for the right of social researchers to protect the identity of their sources (Levine, 1993).


However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the District Court’s contempt ruling thus sending Mr. Scarce to jail on May 14, 1993 (Scarce remains in jail, 1993). He did not receive his release until October 18, 1993, having neither revealed his sources nor established the legal right of researchers to protect their sources (Scarce released from jail, 1993).

Even if no grand jury demands confidential data, disguised field observations can raise ethical concerns. Such methods deceive subjects about their being observed and may expose behaviors of the most private and intimate sort.

The most famous example of such research concerned homosexual acts by men living otherwise “straight” lives. Laud Humphreys (1970) observed homosexual encounters between strangers in public restrooms-the “tearoom trade.

“He was able to do this by playing the role of lookout for anyone approaching, also known as the “watch queen.” He noted the license numbers of the cars driven by his subjects and obtained their names and addresses from motor vehicle records.


A year later, disguised and claiming that he was doing a health survey, he conducted home interviews with 50 of these same men, 27 of whom were married. Humphreys took extensive precautions to protect his subjects’ identities. He notes that “I even allowed myself to be jailed rather than alert the police to the nature of my research, thus avoid the incrimination of respondents through their possible association with a man under surveillance”.

However, others worry that no one should possess such potentially harmful data given the risk that a subpoena could force disclosure (Bernard, 1988). In a later edition of his work (published in 1975), Humphreys himself expressed second thoughts about the wisdom of his methods.