Covert research is associated with deliberate deception in social research and equated with harm and risk to the researcher, the researched, the institution and the field. It is a controversial and emotive tradition that runs counter to and violates the received orthodoxy and professional mantra of informed consent enshrined in various ethical committees, institutional review boards and professional codes of practice. It is a methodological pariah and last resort position that is frowned upon, submerged, marginalized, stigmatized and effectively demonized (Calvey, 2017) in the social sciences. Indeed, to some in that community, to even contemplate a covert move is a belligerent step too far, which displays a cavalier attitude and belligerent lack of ethics. This view of deliberate misrepresentation (Erikson, 1967) accurately represents the received tone of much of the debate around covert research for a lengthy period of time. For many, despite the growing critical literature on informed consent as ideologically idealistic and disconnected from field realities, this derogatory and simplistic characterization of covert research has not altered.
I call for a fairer reading of the covert tradition and, hopefully in turn, a greater appreciation and recognition of the disruptive and invigorating role that covert research has brought to the social sciences. By using covert research, one enters into an ethical labyrinth and moral minefield, saturated in ethical dilemmas and puzzles, but it does not automatically follow that covert researchers have no ethical conscience. Often what are displayed are complex ethical self-regulations and guilt syndromes. Ethics then becomes a situated matter of application as well as a textbook understanding. What is partly called for is a broader and more nuanced way of understanding research ethics in practice.
From my own covert ethnography of bouncers in the night-time economy of Manchester, I experienced a series of ethical moments around witnessing violence and gaining deviant knowledge, that I managed in the field. Part of my sustained passing in the setting was accepting and not altering their moral code and sensibility about events, even though I might have a different personal interpretation. After my lived experience of six months as a covert nomadic bouncer doing different doors in the city, I felt that I had a richer appreciation of their subcultural values and cultural realities. Part of my investigation was in debunking the moral panics and stigma around bouncing being by one of them from the inside.
The classic covert exemplars of Cressey and his study of sex work, Festinger et al and their study of religious cults, Goffman’s study of Asylums, Milgram’s torture and pain experiments, Humphreys’ study of public sexual deviance and Rosenhan’s pseudo-patient study of psychiatric diagnoses are found in most ethics textbooks and are clearly seminal and instructive work with a significant ongoing scholarship about them, which tend to conventionally frame the field of covert research. However, these classics, or what I call usual suspects, can also limit and narrow our understanding of the covert diaspora, with many other covert gems staying submerged. Also, some might erroneously draw the conclusion that covert research is an older tradition that is not conducted anymore. Indeed, the contemporary covert diaspora, on further investigation, is very diverse in the social sciences and spans several topics and fields including, and not definitively, crime, education, health, leisure, politics, religion and work.
On further granulation, these covert studies are rarely purist and employ more mixed strategies involving gate-keeping and key informants. Some studies, moreover, involve more unwitting types of concealment, rather than being designed deceptively. The diaspora then is more akin to a continuum rather than a fixed state of deception. Because the field of covert research is not incremental, integrated, or cross-fertilized, some of the studies have a stand-alone status in their respective fields. This is also compounded by the dearth of dedicated literature on covert research.
There has been a revival of sorts in covert research, although it is ultimately still likely to remain a relatively niche position. This revival, in part, comes from the significant rise in popularity of autoethnography and cyber ethnography, particularly forms of online lurking. A significant amount of them have covert dimensions, both witting and unwitting. A diverse range of sensitive and controversial topics has been explored by both methods.
The classic ethical question of do the means justify the ends often trades on an ideal-type view of informed consentand an inflated and exaggerated view of the potential harm, risk, and danger of covert research.
The hyper-alarmist response to covert research is partly based on a caricatured picture of covert research as heroic. Related to this, the image of the covert researcher is also tied up with versions of undercover research from popular culture in the sense of filmic and television sources, which can give an overly romanticized and glamorized view of the field. Covert research has also been a long accepted and normalized investigatory strategy for a range of practitioners and professionals, particularly in the police, the military and investigative journalism. Some of these covert investigations have had significant impact and influenced reform and change.
Covert research thus becomes a convenient scapegoat for those ethicists who quickly and strictly oppose it in any format, even if it could be used in a complementary way as part of a mixed or multiple methods approach. Covert work can be justified by providing a different type of insider insight, particularly in secretive settings and with illicit topics.
That is not to say that covert research can be zealously seen as a panacea. Nor is it the case that we no longer need robust ethical review processes and that ethical boards and committees are thus rejected and redundant. Such processes and organizations are useful and necessary but they need to refine, connect and adapt their policy sensibilities and mentalities to the messy nature of fieldwork realities.
In the current increasingly corporate climate of research, there has been what Hammersley (2010) cogently describes as creeping ethical regulation and the strangling of research, with covert research being particularly stifled. Miller (1995) described covert participation as the least used method and called for its reconsideration. Roulet et al (2017), in their more recent reconsideration of the value of covert research, argue that it has had a profound role in shaping the social sciences. Covert research can be a creative way, and certainly not the only way, to positively disrupt how we think about applied ethics. It offers an alternative way of doing situated ethics rather than being utterly devoid of them. Covert research is not to everyone’s taste, and will probably continue to offend some, but it should, nevertheless, be considered. Covert research will no doubt remain an object of both fear and fascination.
Calvey, D. (2017) Covert Research: The Art, Ethics and Politics of Undercover Fieldwork, London: Sage.
Erikson, K. T. (1967) ‘A comment on disguised observation in sociology’, Social Problems, 14 (4): 366–373.
Hammersley, M. (2010) ‘Creeping Ethical Regulation and the Strangling of Research’, Sociological Research Online, 15 (4) 16.
Miller, M. (1995) ‘Covert Participant Observation: Reconsidering the least used method’, Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 11 (2): 97-105.
Roulet, T. J., Gill, M. J., Stenger, S and Gill, D. J. (2017) ‘Reconsidering the Value of Covert Research: The Role of Ambiguous Consent in Participant Observation’, Organizational Research Methods, 20 (3): 487-517.
This post may be cited as:
Calvey D. (6 February 2018) ‘Don’t mention the c word: Covert research and the stifling ethics regime in the social sciences’. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/dont-mention-c-word-covert-research-stifling-ethics-regime-social-sciences