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Pros and Cons of Trace Studies

The most important advantage of trace studies is that they are nonreactive, so long as the people you are studying are kept in the dark about what you are doing. What happens when people are told that their garbage is being monitored? Ritenbaugh and Harrison (1984) compared data from an experimental group (people who were told that their garbage was being monitored) and a control group (people who were not told). There was no difference in the refuse disposal behavior of the experimental and control groups—with one important exception. The number of empty bottles of alcoholic drinks that showed up was significantly lower when people knew that their garbage was being monitored.

Where did the extra bottles go? Buried in the backyard? Stuffed in the trash cans of neighbors who were not in the sample? It remains a mystery.

In addition to being nonreactive, behavioral trace studies yield enormous amounts of data that can be standardized, quantified, and compared across groups and over time (Rathje 1979). Moreover, traces reflect many behaviors more accurately than informant reports of those behaviors.

In 1986, as part of a contract with the Heinz Corporation, Rathje and his colleagues asked women in the Tucson area if they had used any store-bought baby food in the past week. Uniformly, the Hispanic mothers insisted that they had not used any such product. You can guess the rest: They had as many baby-food jars in their garbage as did the Anglo households—and this, despite that fact that 45% of the Hispanic women in Tucson at the time were working outside the home (Rathje and Murphy 1992). Those women were caught in a bind: They didn’t have time to prepare home-made baby food, but they couldn’t admit this to a stranger asking questions.

Trace studies like the Garbage Project have plenty of problems, however. Early in the project, it became apparent that garbage disposals were going to be a serious problem. The researchers constructed a subsample of 32 households, some of which had disposals, some of which did not. They studied these 32 households for 5 weeks and developed a ‘‘garbage disposal correction factor’’ (Rathje 1984:16).

As the project went on, researchers learned that some families were recycling all their aluminum cans, and others were throwing theirs in the trash. This made it difficult to compare households regarding their consumption of soft drinks and beer. Some families had compost heaps that they used as fertilizer for their vegetable gardens. This distorted the refuse count for those families. Garbage Project researchers had to develop correction factors for all of these biases, too (see G. G. Harrison 1976).

As with much unobtrusive research, the Garbage Project raised some difficult ethical problems. To protect the privacy of the households in the study, no addresses or names of household members were recorded. All personal items, such as photographs and letters, were thrown out without being examined. The hundreds of student sorters who worked on the project signed pledges not to save anything from the refuse they examined. All the sampling, sorting, and data analysis procedures were approved by the Human Subjects Research Committee of the University of Arizona.

The Garbage Project received consistent coverage in the press, both nationally and locally in Tucson. In 1984, after 10 years of work, Hughes reported that ‘‘no public concern over the issue of personal privacy has been expressed, and community response has been supportive’’ (Hughes 1984:42). With proper safeguards, trace measures generate lots of useful data about human behavior.

 
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