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Covert research: Benefits, costs and best practices

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Thomas Roulet
added 3 research items
How do individuals choose to conceal a stigmatized attribute and what are the consequences of such choice? We answer this question by looking at how gay and lesbian employees make sense of their homosexuality in the highly normative context of audit firms. As a first step, we unveil the subtle pressures exerted on those who possess concealable stigmatized identities. Homosexual auditors engage in partial or full concealment of their sexuality. They live in the fear of being misjudged and casted out of a context in which male values are tantamount. However, the efforts required to conceal create a situation of unrest, which eventually interferes with their social integration at work. We draw on rich ethnographic material in French audit firms, benefitting from the exogenous shock of a gay marriage bill. The study's findings shed new light on audit as a gendered profession and the cost of concealing stigmatized invisible identities.
Covert participant observation has often been discarded as a research method in the social sciences on the grounds that deceiving research subjects is unethical. This article reviews the benefits and costs of the method to argue that the ethicality of covert observation is more ambiguous. It posits that all observational studies sit along a continuum of consent, with few research projects being either fully overt or fully covert. Furthermore, this article demonstrates that the study of socially important topics such as deviance, misconduct or the treatment of minorities is often only possible through substantially covert participant observation.
In this article, we provide a nuanced perspective on the benefits and costs of covert research. In particular, we illustrate the value of such an approach by focusing on covert participant observation. We posit that all observational studies sit along a continuum of consent, with few research projects being either fully overt or fully covert due to practical constraints and the ambiguous nature of consent itself. With reference to illustrative examples, we demonstrate that the study of deviant behaviors, secretive organizations and socially important topics is often only possible through substantially covert participant observation. To support further consideration of this method, we discuss different ethical perspectives and explore techniques to address the practical challenges of covert participant observation, including; gaining access, collecting data surreptitiously, reducing harm to participants, leaving the site of study and addressing ethical issues.