Reconsidering the Value of Covert Research:
The Role of Ambiguous Consent in Participant Observation
Thomas J. Roulet
King’s College London,
Franklin Wilkins Building,
150 Stamford Street, London, SE19NH
Tel: +44 (0)20 7836 5454
Michael J. Gill
University of Bath, UK
Institut Superieur de Gestion (ISG), Paris, France
David J. Gill
University of Nottingham
Forthcoming at Organizational Research Methods
Abstract: 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
Keywords: Covert Research, Covert Participant Observation, Field Observation,
Ethics in research, Qualitative research.
Acknowledgements: The authors are grateful to Vandana Nath, and to the participants of the
AOM 2016 session on qualitative research methods in Anaheim.
In his study of the “Transparency Paradox” in a Chinese factory, Bernstein (2012)
debunked the idea that observing workers can increase their performance. Bernstein
revealed that when factory workers operate in zones of privacy, under certain
conditions, they can deviate from the standard procedures to improve productivity.
Such productive deviance would be curbed by workers’ superiors if identified. The key
to unlocking this counter-intuitive finding was the covert nature of Bernstein’s research.
Insights were “gathered by three embedded researchers who were simultaneously
operators on the factory lines and participant-observers for the study” (Bernstein, 2012,
p. 185). The three researchers that were sent into the field to collect data were
undergraduate students born and raised in China, who would not stand out on the
production line. As Bernstein (2012, p. 185) explains “the three students were
inconspicuously placed on the factory lines as ordinary employees—only the GM, head
of HR, and head of operations of the 14,000-person facility knew their true identities”.
Covert studies that entail some element of deception, such as Bernstein’s (2012)
study, have played a prominent role in the development of the social sciences. For
instance, covert observations informed the creation of cognitive dissonance theory
(Festinger, 1965/2008) and illuminated the poor treatment of those in asylums
(Goffman, 1961). Deceiving participants in experiments has also revealed important
aspects of human nature including our potentially lethal obedience to authority
Studies that employ deception have, however, sparked important debates in
various fields of the social sciences. These studies have often been challenged as
unethical, suggesting that participants are “manipulated” and “conned” (Erikson, 1995,
p. 9) even if the deception of research participants can be unintentional (Cunliffe &
Alcadipani. 2016). These criticisms hinge on the idea that deception entails conducting
research without participants’ fully informed consent. Informed consent describes
potential participants being aware of all the relevant information regarding the risks,
benefits and implications of participating in a study, and then processing this
information to make a decision whether or not to participate (Clarke, 1999). The ethical
guidelines of the AOM, for example, explicitly require the consent of participants and
thus prohibits covert research. Within managerial and organizational research, in
particular, the use of covert research has fallen into abeyance and the debate regarding
its ethical nature has progressively died out. The American Psychological Association
and the American Sociological Association, by contrast to the AOM, are more open to
some forms of deception and the use of false identity, when justified by the value of the
In an effort to illustrate the value of covert approach in management and
organization studies and rekindle the debate surrounding it, we focus on one of the most
common forms of deceptive research: covert participant observation. Covert participant
observation describes a researcher becoming embedded in the group or organization
that they are studying (Gephart, 2004), whilst the researcher conceals “their true
identity and purports to play some other role” (Vinten, 1994, p. 33). In this article, we
highlight that covert participant observation can be virtuous in many ways, providing
access to otherwise unavailable data (Lauder, 2003; Leo, 1995) alongside opportunities
to interpret and understand this data first-hand (Sullivan, et al. 1958; Bulmer, 1982). It
also reduces the risk of disturbing or inhibiting participants’ natural behaviour (Homan,
1980). As noted by Bernstein (2012: 185), employing covert observers enabled him to
“avoid contaminating the environment and the behaviors [he] was attempting to
observe”. With reference to a range of illustrative examples, we detail how these
benefits allow the method to generate novel insights that support the development of
important theoretical and practical contributions.
One of our main arguments in advancing covert participant observation, when
approved by an ethics board of equivalent body, is that all forms of observation rely on
some degree of deception due to the practical realities of observations (Dewalt, Dewalt
& Wayland, 1998; Leo, 1995). In contrast to a simple dichotomy, we present a
continuum of consent for observation, from fully overt to fully covert. We develop an
associated framework to support researchers in establishing where their studies sit along
this continuum, to appreciate the complexity of what constitutes covert or overt
observations. While most researchers justify covert research using a consequentialist
argument, claiming that the benefits outweigh the cost of deception, we consider how
a number of other ethical perspectives can enlighten this debate. In particular, a situated
ethics approach can help the researcher formulate guidelines for observation and
The article proceeds as follows. First, we broadly look at how deception relates
to the question of consent in social science research and consider the perspective of
different professional associations. Second, we focus on one particular form of covert
research – covert participant observation – to examine the unique benefits and costs of
this approach. Third, we explain the necessity for a more nuanced approach to deception
in management research, illustrating the idea of a continuum of consent in terms of
covert studies. Fourth, we outline key ethical perspectives to justify covert research.
Fifth, we provide practical guidance to address the challenges of engaging in covert
participant observation, including gaining access, collecting data, managing participant
harm, leaving the site of study and addressing ethical issues.
THE QUESTION OF CONSENT IN THE SOCIAL SCIENCES
Forms of deception and consent
Deception is to “cause to accept as true what is false or to give a false impression”
(Korn, 1997, p. 4). Between 1959-1969, 58% of a representative sample of social
psychology studies involved some form of deception (Gross & Fleming, 1982). One
way to categorize the different forms of active or intentional deception is in terms of
the extent to researchers capture informed consent from their participants. We suggest
that there are two broad ways that this can occur: participants provide consent on the
basis of false information; or participants provide no consent and receive no
information (Sieber, 1982).
Researchers’ active deceptions that rely on participants’ consent, but on the
basis of false information, have been used in a variety of psychological experiments. In
several famous examples, studies have employed confederates (actors or stooges who
participate in an experiment whilst really working for the researcher) without informing
the real participants (e.g., Asch, 1956; Moscovici & Zavalloni, 1969). One of the most
famous examples is Stanley Milgram’s (1963) experiments on obedience to authority
figures. Milgram recruited participants for his experiment through newspaper adverts
for male participants, falsely informing them that the experiment concerned the study
of memory. In the experiment, each participant was paired with another person. Though
the pairing appeared to the participants to be random, the participants were always
selected to play the role of teacher whilst one of Milgram’s confederates would always
act as the learner. The study measured the willingness of the participants to follow the
orders of an authority figure (an experimenter, Mr. Williams) who instructed
participants to punish learners’ errors by administering electric shocks, with the voltage
increasing in 15-volt increments for each wrong answer. Unbeknownst to the
participants, the learner was not actually receiving any electric shocks. Milgram’s study
revealed that, despite the learner clearly communicating their distress and eventually
providing no response at all, 65% of participants would eventually administer lethal
electric shocks. The impact of Milgram’s work was considerable, in terms of research
ethics and psychological theory, and it served to illuminate the human potential for
destructive obedience and ineffectual disobedience (Elms, Erwin, Gendin, & Kleiman,
Studies in which participants provide no consent and receive no information
tend to rely on observations and occur in more natural settings, outside the artificial
confines of a laboratory. For example, Piliavin, Rodin, and Piliavin (1969) conducted
a field experiment on a subway in New York, where they observed the reactions and
responses of the general public to their confederates falling over. They were able to
disprove the popular thesis, corroborated in laboratory experiments, which suggested
that greater group sizes lead to the diffusion of responsibility.
Outside of experiments or induced events, researchers have also observed
everyday life in natural settings without the consent of those being observed. Common
in a variety of ethnographic studies, this approach is often referred to as covert
observation. For instance, Walters and Godbold (2014) observed adult behaviour at
children’s sporting events without the consent of those attending and provided
information only upon the rare request of the participants. The authors argued that “the
ends justified the means” as their method provided evidence that inappropriate adult
behaviour towards children is not uncommon yet remains unreported (Walters &
Godbold, 2014, p. 536).
One of the most common form of deceptive research is covert participant
observation, which calls for researchers to participate in the cultures, groups or
organizations they are observing whilst hiding their true identity. Such an approach has
been employed in sociological studies across a variety of groups or settings, including
factories (Bernstein, 2012), asylums (Goffman, 1961), Pentecostal churches (Homan,
1980), gangs of adolescent boys (Parker, 1992), football hooligans (Pearson, 2009) and
young men on the run from the police (Goffman, 2015). Intentionally or unintentionally
deceiving participants on the research motives is common to access fields of study
(Cunliffe & Alcadipani, 2016). In perhaps the most notorious case, Laud Humphreys
(1970) conducted a covert participative observation of public bathrooms used for secret
homosexual relations (known as tea-rooming). By acting as a lookout, he gained the
confidence of some of the men he observed and learnt more about their experiences.
Humphreys secretly recorded the license plates on the cars of these men. A year later,
disguised, Humphreys visited their homes and pretended to be a health visitor and
interviewed these same men about their employment, marital status and political views.
Humphreys suggested that his research, which was strictly anonymized, had shed light
on a widespread but rarely studied form of human interaction that would have otherwise
remained hidden because of the taboo nature of this topic (Hudson & Okhuysen, 2014).
His work contributed to debunk the idea of gays as deviant, while at the same time
showing that the members of this community had to remain hidden behind false
identities. He offered to understand how individuals could elaborate complex lies to
appear as abiding by heterosexual societal norms, while in parallel being true to
themselves in parallel settings.
Diverging views on the need for informed consent
Ethical guidelines in academic associations tend to emphasize the need for fully
informed consent from research participants. General guidelines of research councils
and funders, such as the Tri-Council in Canada or the National Science Foundation
(NSF) in the United States of America, stress the “duties of honest and thoughtful
inquiry” and of “being straightforward and free of [...] deception” (Tri-Agency, 2011).
Without specifically referring to covert research, research councils reject deceptive
methods. The NSF now requires ethical training for those involved in research and one
of the key aspect to be covered is the recruitment of subjects that are participating
voluntarily to the study and building a trustworthy relationship with the researcher.
The Academy of Management (AOM) emphasizes protecting “the privacy,
dignity, well-being and freedom of research participants” (Academy of Management,
2006, p. 3). It also stipulates that AOM members “obtain the informed consent of the
individual or individuals, using language that is reasonably understandable to that
person or persons” and requires that “written or oral consent, permission, and assent
are documented appropriately” (p. 5). In this sense, covert research, which relies on the
absence of informed consent (Soble, 1978), would be a breach of the AOM code of
Other fields of social science, however, provide differing views. The American
Sociological Association (1999) more explicitly address the use of deception. The
Association (1999, 12.05) notes that:
“On rare occasions, sociologists may need to conceal their identities in
order to undertake research that could not practicably be carried out were
they to be known as researchers. Under such circumstances, sociologists
undertake the research if it involves no more than minimal risk for the
research participants and if they have obtained approval to proceed in this
manner from an institutional review board or, in the absence of such
boards, from another authoritative body with expertise on the ethics of
research. Under such circumstances, confidentiality must be maintained”.
The American Psychological Association (2010, 8.07) recognizes that “the use
of deceptive techniques [can be] justified by the study's significant prospective
scientific, educational, or applied value” and by the fact “that effective non-deceptive
alternative procedures are not feasible”. Scholars must be able to “justify the value” of
the knowledge acquired, and show that “nondeceptive alternative procedures are not
feasible” (American Psychological Association, 2010, p. 8.07).
In this way, the limited use of deception in management and organizational
research relative to sociology and psychology becomes clearer when considered in light
of associated ethical codes. Whilst some management ethical guidelines conceptualize
consent in black and white terms, other social science disciplines offer a more nuanced
view and recognise the potential value of deception in research, albeit in rare situations
or when alternatives are not feasible. To more clearly illustrate the value of covert
research and the debate surrounding it we focus on one of the most common deceptive
approaches: covert participant observation.
THE DEBATE AROUND COVERT PARTICIPANT
Covert participant observation has yielded important theoretical contributions, and in
this sense provides a good focus to illustrate the benefits of research that entails some
aspect of deception. It has also been at the center of the controversy and aroused a
variety of criticisms.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the School of Chicago popularized studies that utilised
covert observation in the field of sociology (Bulmer, 1986). These studies entailed a
participatory dimension, with students joining occupational groups and using the job as
a way to finance their postgraduate studies (Roth, 1959). This research illuminated the
every-day life of taxi drivers (Davis, 1974) factory workers (Roy, 1952), or jazz clubs
(Becker, 1951). These studies emphasized mixing with the participants on a basis of
equality and concealment, engaging in informal interaction in a situation of anonymity
to explore aspects of human nature not ordinarily revealed (Bulmer, 1986).
Covert participant observation has continued to be employed across a variety of
fields, such as nursing (Johnson, 1992), addiction (Power, 1989), community
psychology (Farrington & Robinson, 1999), religious studies (Lauder, 2003) and
medical anthropology (Oeye, et al. 2007). Management and organization studies also
benefitted from an early tradition of covert observation in a series of monographs
interested in the daily life of workers and managers. Melville Dalton (1959), who acted
as an administrative assistant to collect data on the informal culture of organizational
life, offered a groundbreaking study of hidden political conflicts at the executive level
in three manufacturing firms and one department store. He empirically documented the
limits of human rationality in the workplace and the distribution of organizational
power beyond formal hierarchies. Van Maanen (1975) enrolled himself as a participant
observer in a training programme of the police to observe from the “bottom-up” (Van
Maanen, 1981, p. 6) how trainees would socialize with each other, and experience first-
hand that process. While Van Maanen had the consent from the police forces he
observed, he did not have the consent of the civilians. Similarly, Laurie Graham (1995)
investigated the production technique of lean management that was glorified at that
time by becoming a worker on the production line of a Japanese manufacturer in
Indiana. Her work was the first to provide an in-depth understanding and thorough
critique of lean management by looking at the impact of employee control. She revealed
the dangerous intensity of work and the health-related consequences of lean
management techniques that were largely unreported. By drawing on these and other
examples of covert participant observation, we go on to highlight a range of benefits of
this method for developing important theoretical contributions within management and
Benefits of covert participation observation
We propose that covert observation offers three overlapping benefits. First, covert
participant observation can provide access to institutions or organizations that would
otherwise remain excluded from researchers. This includes secretive organizations
(known to the wider public remaining discrete about their activities) and secret
organizations (not known to the wider public, and without a forefront). Second, it may
allow researchers to collect data as an insider, reducing the risk of those under study
modifying their behaviors and can thereby reveal secretive behaviours, which may be
obscured or unethical. Third, being a ‘pure’ insider also allows the researcher to
experience first-hand the phenomena under study in the same way that the participants
experience it. Individually and collectively, these benefits can generate new insights
and capture rich data that would often be unobtainable to support novel theoretical
Covert participant observation can provide access to behaviour or organizations,
or parts of organizations, which would otherwise remain inaccessible to overt research.
Gaining and maintaining access is often a challenging task (Peticca-Harris, deGama &
Elias, 2016). To gain and maintain access, deception is often common practice (Cunliffe
& Alcadipani, 2016). This is particularly true in secretive organizations such as the
military or the police (e.g. Mann, 1957; Sullivan, et al. 1958; Leo, 1995) or for
organizations that have something to hide (e.g. Morales & Lambert, 2012) or that desire
to remain a secret and mysterious to preserve internal values and cohesion (e.g.
Festinger et al., 2008). In those contexts, the participants and the field are more likely
to be isolated and often inaccessible to overt research projects (Lauder, 2003). As such,
covert observation may be the only way to study deviance (Leo, 1995; Lauder, 2003)
or minorities and underprivileged populations (Dewalt, et al. 1998). Indeed, Sullivan
(1959) justifies pursuing covert observations due to the ‘inaccessibility of institutions’.
!One example is Leon Festinger’s research into a secretive cult. In 1954,
Festinger sought to understand how the members of doomsday communities who
anticipated an imminent apocalypse could deal with a truth inconsistent with their belief
(Festinger, Riecken & Schachter, 2008). Festinger and colleagues joined the cult to
observe the phenomenon from the inside and participated in group meetings. The data
they collected supported the fundamental propositions of the hugely influential
cognitive dissonance theory. This theory posits that individuals tend to behave in
conformity with their beliefs, and discard any information that might bring them to
change their beliefs and thus their behavior. Later, he designed laboratory experiments
to test the propositions developed through this first qualitative exploration. The
resulting cognitive dissonance theory has inspired thousands of researcher projects and
generated thousands of publications, and remains a popular theory across the social
Whilst covert participant observation can be applied to secret organizations such
as cults, it can also be applied to secretive parts of more publically known organizations.
For example, Leo (1995) describes that whilst other police activities are conducted
openly and subject to public scrutiny, only in exceptional circumstances will civilians
be permitted to observe interrogations. Leo waited two years to be granted access to the
interrogation room. Despite “the introduction from their superiors (whom, [he] later
learned, many of the detectives intensely disliked), most of the detectives initially
distrusted [his] motives and the research objectives of [his] study; some bluntly told
[him] so, others quietly avoided [him] (Leo, 1995: 118). To avoid limiting access to
potentially valuable information, he lied about his identity to be able to observe a
detective interrogation room. In his own terms, he “reinvented [his] persona to fit the
attributes, biases, and worldview of [his] subjects” (Leo, 1995: 120). Leo needed to
distance himself from his identity as an academic which was prejudicially associated
with advocacy of defendants. To achieve this identity make over, Leo adopted the same
routines and culture as the police officers he was observing, and creating a rapport by
faking personal and political similitude. Invoking “moral relativism”, Leo (1996: 126)
defended deceiving subjects on the basis that it is counterbalanced by the social value
of the knowledge acquired, in his case, his findings on misbehaviors in the interrogation
room support the idea of making police socially accountable. Similarly, Dalton (1959)
explained how being undercover helped him to access the “informal” organization and
the controversies of organizational life. This is important because, as Johnson (1992)
stresses, in the case of occupations that play major societal roles, such as the police or
the army, covert observation is one way to reveal their practices and hold them to
account. In this way, such research also offers unique practical contributions.
Some behaviors might not be exhibited by the participants when they know they
are observed. When participants think they are interacting with one of ‘their own’, they
will behave in a more natural way (Denscombe, 2010). As such, researching covertly
prevents the researcher being perceived as an outsider and therefore reduces the risk
that they may modify their behaviors (Sullivan, 1959; Oliver & Eales, 2008; Roulet &
Stenger, 2014). Being undercover can sometimes be necessary to ensure the
“naturalness” of the data (Denscombe, 2010, p. 217) and avoid the social stigma
associated with being a researcher (Van Maanen, 1981). Subjects are “free from
disturbance and inhibition” (Homan, 1980, p. 3). In Lauder’s (2003) study of a
xenophobic movement in Canada, the researcher was clearly able to compare the data
collected through overt and covert observation. He later concluded the latter was the
only way to obtain relevant data on the participants’ behaviors and values. Similarly,
Bernstein (2012) noted that the presence of a “foreigner” would perturb workers and
contaminate the collection of data.
Erving Goffman relied on an almost fully covert observation in an asylum for
mentally ill people (Goffman, 1961). Goffman joined St Elizabeth psychiatric hospital
as an Assistant to the Athletic Director for a year. This is a classic example of covert
research: neither the organization (i.e. the hospital) nor the subjects (staff and patients)
knew that he was a researcher collecting data. Goffman does, however, mention that a
couple of staff members gradually came to know that he was a researcher. Goffman
sought to understand “total institutions” – environments in which participants are
secluded from the world - from the inside and access a hidden reality that would not be
made available to him as an overt researcher. His work focused mostly on the
relationship between the inmate and the institution. His radical critique of mental
hospitals as “total institutions” and the treatment of mental illnesses had a significant
and long-lasting impact on practice. For instance, he singled out the treatment of mental
illness at that time as ineffective and even counterproductive, aggravating the issues by
isolating and dehumanizing the patients. This critique is also recognised as having
helped to open mental health as a field of research for social scientists (Holmes, 2009).
Covert participation observation can sometimes require researchers to assume a
“total participating role” (Sullivan, 1959: 399). This can enable researchers to go
beyond what is expressed by the participants to experience the norms and understand
the practices firsthand. As the researcher’s “commitments deepen, a more refined and
fixed sense of social arrangements develops” (Van Maanen, 1981, p. 40). The advocates
of covert participant observation have pointed out the richness of the data obtained and
that this method provides the researcher with a more profound understanding of the
organizational issues at stake (Roy, 1952; Oliver & Eales, 2008).
One example of the benefit of experiencing phenomena first-hand comes from
Bernstein’s (2012) multi-method study in a manufacturing firm in Southern China.
Whilst he did not participate directly in the collection of the qualitative data, Bernstein’s
team of researchers did participate directly in an initial qualitative study of factory work
in China. The observers were “instruments of the research” (Bernstein, 2012, p. 187)
as they “lived with those whom they studied” and went through the same process as
new hires and were allocated to tasks by “floor heads and line leaders, who were
unaware of their status as embeds” ( Bernstein, 2012, p. 186). Had the researchers not
participated in the study themselves then it is unlikely that they could have recognised
how transparency and monitoring can actually hamper the emergence of practices that
Covert participant observation can generate new insights and knowledge that is
not always possible with more overt methods. Covert participant observations are
particularly well suited to studying secretive organizations, observing natural
behaviours in the workplace, and gaining a first-hand and richer account of the
phenomena under study. It is important to note that covert participation observation can
also complement other existing methods, particularly as an initial source of propositions
that can be refined or tested through different methods (as in the cases of Bernstein
2012; Festinger et al., 2008). Furthermore, the data collected through covert participant
observations can be integrated into established methodologies and analytical processes,
such as grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967), ethnomethodology (Gephart, 1978)
and phenomenology (Gill, 2014). Covert participant observation offers one way to
study phenomena that often remains hidden from organizational researchers, such as
emotions like anger or fear (Gill, 2015), mentalities as underlying and hidden beliefs
(Clemente, et al. 2017) or stigmatized organizations (Hudson & Okhuysen, 2014;
Roulet, 2015). Table 1 outlines the benefits discussed in this section with reference to
examples of covert participant observations from across the social sciences.
Please insert table 1 about here
Criticisms of covert participant observation
One of the first disputes around covert participant observation began in 1959, in the
American Sociological Review, with an opinion piece entitled “A Question of
Professional Ethics” (Coser, 1959). Coser argued that deceiving organizational
members to collect data was ethically unacceptable and could lead researchers to spy
on behalf of senior staff. Subsequent debates emerged, such as when Erikson (1995, p.
9) criticized Leo’s (1995) covert investigation of detectives’ behaviors in an
interrogation room because of the unethical way “he ‘manipulated’ and ‘conned’ his
subjects into thinking he was someone quite other than his true self”. The relatively
small number of management and organizational research studies that explicitly state
employing covert participant observations is likely to reflect the ethical scrutiny that
the method has attracted. Covert observation is “interactionally deceitful” (Ditton,
1977, p. 10) and those who perform it have been labelled ‘liars’ (Allen, 1997).
The first issue is that covert researchers typically mislead others about their
identity or the intent of the research (Lauder, 2003). Observing participants without
their informed consent is often viewed as a breach of their rights and privacy (Coser,
1959). For instance, the participants being observed may engage in behaviors they do
not wish to be recorded (Dewalt, Dewalt & Wayland, 1998; Goffman, 2015).
Recognizing the rights of participants is a fundamental ethical consideration (Oliver &
Eales, 2008). Covert observation therefore violates the “principle of informed consent”
(Bulmer, 1982, p. 252) as it betrays the trust of participants.The information collected
covertly may be used to harm those being observed, even if inadvertently. This is
problematic because research is usually expected to remain harmless to the participants
(Oliver & Eales, 2008) yet covert studies may pose a risk to the unknowing individuals
being observed. In one example, Leo (1995) was called to court to act as a witness
against the police officers he observed in an interrogation room. This meant that he was
compelled by lawyers to release his field notes thereby jeopardizing the participants of
his study. This might appear to be an extreme case. However, as ethics committees,
funding bodies and scientific outlets demand increasing transparency it is likely that
researchers will face increasing pressure to reveal details of their research (Dewalt, et
al. 1998), which makes data collected covertly increasingly problematic. Furthermore,
organizations or fields that have been the object of covert observation can become more
suspicious and harder to study for future generations of researchers.
A further criticism of covert approaches is that the researcher employing such a
method may have to engage in morally abhorrent or risky behaviors to gain access and
to avoid being discovered (Dewalt, et al. 1998). Pretending to ‘be someone else’ can
lead the researcher to act in a way that they may find questionable, as in the case of
Leo’s investigation of interrogation room (Leo, 1995). Dewalt et al. (1998) mention the
use of illicit drugs, violence and sexual involvement with their participants. As pointed
out by Lauder (2003), the researcher might only be trusted once he or she has engaged
in an action that would be questionable for outsiders but that would be interpreted as a
sign of commitment to the group by insiders. Engaging in criminal behavior in the
context of covert participant observation would expose the researcher to legal
prosecution, arrest and jail. The recent controversy around Alice Goffman’s work
(Goffman, 2015), who flirted with illegality as she fully participated in the life of the
gang she observed, illuminated some of the ethical issues with researchers’ actions in
the context of participant observation. With one of the informant, she engaged in
chasing the suspected murderer of one of the individuals she had befriended during her
participant observation. As she noted, she “[didn’t] believe she got into the car because
[…] [she] wanted to learn firsthand about violence […] but because she wanted Chuck
[her informant]’s killer to die” (Goffman, 2015, p. 262). Goffman recognizes that she
became carried away as her research purpose was eclipsed by her participant identity.
She also considered selling drugs as part of the participant observation (p. 243). She
reports that being immersed in a criminally active group affected her moral code,
explaining how in her first days as a graduate student at Princeton, she “caught [herself]
making a mental note of [what] [she] could steal if [she] ever needed cash”.
Existing studies have highlighted how researchers, as well as the participants
that they study, can be adversely affected by performing covert research. As Punch
(1986, p. 73) stated “eavesdropping, fudging over one’s purpose, simulating friendship,
surreptitiously reading documents, etc. – make for good data but bad consciences.”
Elsewhere, this has been referred to the idea of the ‘sociologist’s original sin’, when
researchers experience guilt for building relationships with others for the purpose of
collecting data (Davis, 1959), especially when fieldworkers may become good friends
with those that they study (Thorne, 1980). This is likely to be particularly acute and
significant for covert participation observers. For instance, Graham (1995, p. 15) notes
that her activity was “physically demanding and emotionally draining” and Berlin
(1995) notes the difficulties she experienced by disguising her identity and maintaining
A further criticism concerns the validity of data collected through covert
observation. Having a distanced perspective or being somewhat removed from the
empirical context is often viewed as a signal of quality in data collection (Locke,
Golden-Biddle & Feldman, 2008). In a covert participant observation, the research
object and the researcher are confounded: a covert observer participates in what is being
observed (Oliver & Eales, 2008). When a researcher is involved as a participant
observer, it is commonly suspected that he or she will therefore lack the distance
required to report rigorous empirical accounts. Some scholars have viewed this issue as
an epistemological question rather than a methodological flaw (Anteby, 2013). For
instance, auto-ethnography, an approach that uses the experience of the researcher as a
source of data, acknowledges the subjective aspects through which data is collected and
apprehended (Gephart, 1978). The sense-making processes experienced by the
researcher offers important insights that can be considered and accepted as useful
subjective accounts rather than biased elements of data (Islam, 2015). Nonetheless,
many scholars consider covert participant observation highly problematic as a method
of data collection.
THE CASE FOR COVERT PARTICIPANT RESEARCH
The dimensions of informed consent
Declaring covert participant observation as unethical due to the method’s failure to
acquire consent is a simplification of a complex issue (Calvey, 2008). Observational
studies are rarely fully covert or fully overt but usually situated somewhere between
these two poles. To highlight this complexity, we consider observational studies in
terms of two dimensions: who knows the researcher’s purpose (breadth of the consent),
and how much is known (depth of the consent).
In terms of the first dimension, breadth of consent or who is aware of the study,
informed consent can be collected at the organizational level, from official
representatives of an organization, as well as at the individual level, from participants
being observed directly or indirectly observed. In terms of the second dimension, depth
of consent or how much each participant is aware of the study, different amounts of
information can be provided to the participants from full disclosure of the research
purpose, process, risks and benefits to no disclosure whatsoever (Calvey, 2008). Figure
1 illustrates the two dimensions of deceit for covert participant observational studies
Please insert figure 1 about here
To illustrate these dimensions and to highlight the nuanced nature of consent,
we refer to a range of studies that can be situated at different points. At one extreme
point of the continuum, researchers employ fully covert observations. For example,
Postula and Postula (2011) studied liminal actions in a state-owned enterprise in Poland.
They opted for covert observation because “they were concerned about employees’
reaction to a strange observer” (2011, p. 36). Also explicit in their use of an explicitly
covert approach, Berlin (1995) looked at technological issues and cultural clash in the
contexts of a factory and a multinational company in Venezuela. In one particular case,
she “infiltrated as a spy” (p. 386) to show how local workers were less interested in
acquiring technical skills. This work directly questioned the problematic role of foreign
direct investment, by contrast with the positive role usually assumed, through the use
of covert methods.
In the middle of the continuum, observations can be partially covert with a share
of the participants knowing about the real identity of the researcher. For example, the
senior members or gatekeepers of an organizations under study can be informed of the
research process of the participant observers. This was the case for Bernstein’s (2012)
study of a Chinese factory. The studied facility employed “65,000 individuals in 3.1
million square feet of manufacturing space” (Bernstein, 2012, p. 184). In this context,
it appears that while the organization had given its approval (the general manager, head
of human resources and operations knew about the study), the employees did not
provide any informed consent to participate to the study. In the same vein, Alice
Goffman (2015) relied on two key gatekeepers to access the field with whom she shared
her work at several stages during the observation, though many other participants were
not informed. Those intermediaries vouched for her and defended her presence. This
did not come without any cost: Goffman’s relationship with the intermediary started
after a date, and she was regularly thought as being romantically involved with him or
other subjects. After her intermediary being taken into custody, Goffman was cut from
the field and could not carry out her observation anymore. Pratt (2000, p. 460) explicitly
acknowledged that he employed “semiovert participant observation” in a marketing
distribution company, letting his co-workers know about his inquiry, but seemingly
leaving other more distant participants less informed. Presumably, Pratt did not obtain
consent from the customers as he was selling products as part of his participant
A number of partly covert observations have been published in the management
journal Administrative Science Quarterly, although they do not always explicitly
mention the deceptive aspect (Van Maanen, 1975; Sutton, 1991; Bernstein, 2012). Van
Maanen (1975) enrolled himself as a participant observer in a training programme of
the police to observe from the “bottom-up” (Van Maanen, 1981, p. 6) how trainees
would socialize with each other, and experience first-hand that process. Sutton (1991)
investigated the daily routine of debt collectors. While the organization and the
gatekeeper knew about his research purpose, it is not clear whom among the collectors
he interacted with were aware of his research purpose. However some parts of his
observation were obviously covert as he for example used a ‘spy-and-tell’ system to
listen to calls between debtors and collector without being known.
The issue of informed consent is common to many forms of observation. It is
unrealistic to believe that all observational studies can acquire truly complete and
formal consent from all participants (Dewalt et al., 1998), especially when observing a
large number of participants (Berlin, 1995). Whilst researchers can obtain consent at
the top of the hierarchical pyramid – and the consent of organizational gatekeepers – it
often only assumes consent of those lower level employees. Furthermore, it is never
clear what participants can consent to ex-ante and how this can diverge as the
observation process unfolds (Miller & Bell, 2002). Access to the field may also involve
some unintentional distortion of the truth with regards to the identity of the researcher
and the purpose of the research that questions the fully informed nature of the subjects’
consent (Cunliffe & Acadipani, 2016). In this way, simple conceptualizations of
consent ignore the practical constraints of observation as a method of data collection.
In addition, the frontier between overt and covert research is unclear (Calvey,
2008). Although presented as an overt observation, the example of Alice Goffman’s
observation of Black neighborhoods in Philadelphia is particularly telling (Goffman,
2015; see her methodological note in Appendix p. 213-263). Her research initially
focused on the life of Black women, but as she met new actors in the field, she
progressively shifted her observation towards a group of men involved in illegal
activities. The first group of women she observed “thought [Goffman’s involvement as
a tutor for adolescents in the neighborhood] was for school” (p. 221). Thus, the first
group of subjects had only a vague sense that Goffman was observing them as part of
a research project. As Alice Goffman started to become interested in other groups of
individuals, her identity as a researcher became less and less apparent to the individuals
that ultimately became subject of the study. This reflects Clarke’s (1999) argument that
informed consent is made difficult by the struggles for subjects to fully understand the
process or the nature of research, because of their training and education, but also
potentially because of disinterest.
As noted in the case of Alice Goffman’s (2015) investigation above, a research
study is unlikely to remain in a fixed position in relation to these two dimensions
throughout the period of observing and data collection. Lauder (2003) for example,
initially presented himself as a researcher, but progressively feigned conversion and
disguised his convictions to gain the trust of his subject. Conceiving of covert
participant observations as dynamic research that moves frequently along a continuum
of consent is valuable because it highlights the complexity of capturing complete
consent in the field. In this way, covert participant observation is only “different in
degree in the extent of deception used from "open" research” (Bulmer, 1982, p. 253).
Ethical justifications and toolkit for covert participant observation
In Table 2, we have contrasted the different perspectives of professional associations
on covert research and deceptive approaches. We have also considered the ethical
argument on which they rely, though these are not explicitly stated. While the Academy
of Management (AOM) strictly requires informed consent, other associations offer
greater latitude. The AOM focuses on the respect of the autonomy and dignity of
participants, thus ultimately leaving them the choice to participate in studies. The
American Psychological Association and the American Sociological Association allow
for some deception in case it is justified by the research purpose and consequences.
Accordingly, deception in social sciences research, and more specifically covert
participant observation, is usually justified by researchers employing a consequentialist
argument. The consequentialist argument is the most common ethical justification we
have found in our review of covert research across the social sciences.
Please insert table 2 about here
The consequentialist perspective: The consequentialist argument emphasizes
that the benefits of the research for society outweigh the costs to participants (e.g.,
Baumrind, 1979; Walters & Godbold, 2014). From a consequentialist perspective, what
is morally right, is the course of action that has the greatest benefits for the greatest
number of people. The focus is on the consequence of the researchers’ action. Covert
participant observation is ethical when the social benefits outweigh the costs (Lauder,
2008) and it is the right course of action because of the positive outcome it can yield.
For instance, Leo (1996, p. 126) defended deceiving subjects on the basis that it is
counterbalanced by the social value of the knowledge acquired (Oeye et al., 2007).
Humphreys (1975) justified his covert observation of the double life of homosexuals to
explain the social dilemma they faced and to debunk the notion that they were deviants
Making this consequentialist argument relies on the “justification” of the value
of the covert research (American Psychological Association, 2010). This would rely on
some form of assessment of the social good or the advancement of science that will
ultimately yield positive consequences for the society. As discussed earlier, it is
possible to make the case that some covert participant observations have made
significant theoretical and practical contributions across the social sciences. From a
consequentialist perspective, the researcher can lie, break promises and deceive
subjects if that can be outweighed by positive consequences. One argument in favor of
a consequentialist approach to covert research is the fact that only the result of the
research remains, while the method and the process are only transient (Oliver & Eales
2008). For example, it can be argued that Humphrey’s work (1979) may have put some
subjects in embarrassing posture, but in a long-term perspective, his work has helped
to normalize homosexuality (Wiles, 2012).
There are, however, a number of problems with adopting a consequentialist
perspective in terms of covert participant research. Comparing the costs and benefits of
a course of action is often practically impossible (Rawls, 1971): how to capture value?
To whom? It is practically impossible to evaluate the consequences of all the actions of
individuals involved for an indefinite time (Israel & Hay, 2006). Some consequences
of the covert research might be unintended and not anticipated by the researcher: for
example, what if, in the case of Bernstein’s study (2012), some workers were fired
because they had been caught slacking by the observers? The researcher is unlikely to
have even been aware of those potential consequences. Further, Jackson (1991)
explains how continued deception might hamper efficient decision processes for the
deceiving party: concretely, the covert researcher will spend more energy trying to hide
his or her real identity and motive rather than conduct good research. Finally, the
consequentialist perspective assumes that the researcher knows what is better for the
participants than the participants themselves. Clarke (1999, p. 158) points out that the
consequentialist view would defend the idea that individuals know the best way to
maximize their own utility, and their right to informed consent should thus be
inviolable. Thus the consequentialist argument can also be made against covert
The Kantian perspective: Similarly, a Kantian ethical perspective would require
all subjects to be able to rationally make the choice of participating in an experiment,
considering its emphasis on individual autonomy. From this deontological perspective,
obligations do not follow from consequences but rather from the morality of actions,
based in particular on the respect of human dignity (Israel & Hay, 2006). The Kantian
perspective argues that “persons have unconditional worth and ought to be treated as
autonomous ends and never merely as means” (Clarke, 1999, p. 158). Because it
focuses on the moral duties we have to respect ourselves and other human beings,
informed consent is a key element of deontological research ethics. The AOM Code of
Ethics relies on a deontological perspective because of its focus on the inherent rights
of participants (Oliver & Eales, 2008). From the perspective of deontological ethics,
researchers should follow the norms and rules set up by their field. As we discussed in
the first section of that paper, most professional associations emphasis the need for fully
informed consent. Thus, requiring informed consent has been the dominant paradigm
because it recognizes Kant’s point on individual autonomy and also satisfies
consequentialist perspectives as it recognizes the power for participants to decide for
themselves what is best.
However, a deontological argument can be made in favor of covert research. A
moderate Kantian view such as Parfit’s objective ethical theory, blending Kantian
deontology and consequentialism (Parfit, 2011), would lift the requirement for
individual autonomy if the benefits for society are enormous and can be unanimously
recognized by potential subjects. Parfit (2011: 411) indeed argues that “everyone ought
to follow the principles whose universal acceptance everyone could rationally choose
or will”. Thus, if something can be unanimously accepted as positive, it is the right
course of action. Parfit’s perspective can be applied to the ethics of covert research: if
ex-ante, it can be argued that the deceived subjects would agree that the research
purpose outweighs the cost of being deceived, then covert research is justified. Such a
case can however be hard to make (Clarke, 1999), especially when the findings and
impact of research are difficult to predict or would not necessarily be recognized by the
observed subjects.Situated ethics as an alternative perspective: Some of the
consequentialist arguments in favor of covert research have relied on the idea of
“proportionate reason” (Angrosino & Mays de Perez, 2000; Oliver & Eales 2008)
whereby researchers can formulate a judgement on what is acceptable depending on the
outcome. This assumes that researchers’ “assessment of research rights and
consequences, can like the research process be based on their own interpretation rather
of what is right or wrong” (Oliver & Eales 2008: 347). Such an approach is well
anchored in the trend of situated ethics: as a philosophy of action, it can offer a less
rigid lens than consequentialist or deontological approaches as it rejects the idea of
universal principles or codes of actions.
In contrast to the aforementioned ethical perspectives, which proffer general
principles that can be applied in a range of situations, situated ethics pay more attention
to ethics as an ongoing social practice and emphasizes that ethical principles should be
shaped by contextual factors rather than by universal codes (Nyberg, 2008). In a number
of empirical contexts, it is impossible to ‘take a side’ (i.e. determine what is right and
wrong), considering the complex web of connections and motives (Calvey, 2008). This
is especially true in the contexts that are harder to access for researchers. As a solution,
Calvey (2008) suggests that covert observers engage in situated ethics, through constant
reflection on the morality of the researcher’s action in the field. Researchers need to
constantly revise their assumption by questioning the ethicality of their decisions as the
observation is carried out: ethical integrity needs to be continually maintained and
justified (Simons & Usher, 2000). Reflexivity has been shown to be particularly helpful
for qualitative researchers to apprehend their relations to the subjects of their inquiry
(Hibbert, et al. 2014).
Situated ethics requires the researcher to reflect on his or her actions and
understand what sense they make in each context. Rather than offering a final answer
on what is moral or not, situated ethics requires the researcher to morally question each
of his or her actions to ultimately justify the choices made as an observer. Danaher and
Danaher (2008) offer three steps for the researcher who chooses to engage in situated
ethics. First, the researcher needs to unfreeze the ethical decision making by
acknowledging the typically transitory and unpredictable nature of the field being
observed. This means that the right ethical decision can be wrong at a later point in
time. In the case of Humphrey (1970), he repeatedly infiltrated some scenes that were
not going to bring him any new elements of data. A situated ethics perspective would
have helped him limit the scope of his covert research by questioning the research
objective of some unnecessary parts of his investigation. The second suggestion of
Danaher & Danaher (2008) is to unsettle taken for granted assumptions of what is right
and wrong. Lauder (2003) explains how during his observation of a right-wing group,
he had no other choice than lying on his identity because of the physical risks he could
be facing, while at the same time not judging the behaviors of the subjects. Finally, the
researcher is invited to interrogate the relationships and situations of the subjects he or
she observes. Relationships and situations can be driven by power, attachment or other
invisible elements that can hamper the ethical judgement of the researchers. Some
existing covert research already relies on situated ethics principles. For instance, the
way Alice Goffman (2015) reflects on the way she acts (or is tempted to act) is in some
way an attempt to update and refresh her decision making. She recognized the evolution
of her judgement over the subjects she observed as she was carrying out her research.
She caught herself being imprinted by her identity as a field participant when she
considered selling drugs or stealing computers and she immediately corrected her
behavior. However, she only reflected on her manhunt (the one that triggered the
controversy regarding her work) after it happened, and refused to recognize it as an
ethical failure, although she does interrogate the relation she has built with the subjects.
The situated ethics perspective offers an alternative to a binary perspective of
what is right or wrong (Simons & Usher, 2000). Table 3 provides a guide for the covert
participant observer to carry out ethical reflexivity, by highlighting some of the
questions a researcher is likely face in terms of entering the field, during the period of
covert study and leaving the field. These questions reflect the ethical difficulties faced
by covert researchers in the recent past (e.g., Bernstein, 2012; Goffman, 2015; Lauder,
2003) and can be used in the methods section but also in the presentation and framing
of the findings. The situated ethics perspective is not only aimed at helping the
researcher to make the right choices when carrying out the participant observation but
also when interpreting and representing the realities of the participants (Simons &
Please insert table 3 about here
PRACTICAL CONSIDERATIONS FOR THE COVERT PARTICIPANT
Whilst covert participant observation offers many benefits it also generates unique
practical challenges. To address the paucity of guidance for researchers interested in
employing covert participant observation, we consider several of these challenges and
offer a variety of techniques that scholars have utilized in the field to overcome them.
We address five challenges: developing a cover story; collecting data surreptitiously;
reducing harm to participants; leaving the site of study; and receiving approval from
ethical boards. It is important to emphasize the value of research training in developing
the relevant competencies to undertake research, especially for research which entails
some degree of deception. Any researcher who seeks to employ such a method should
seek out training in ethnographic approaches, observational methods and ethical issues.
Furthermore, researchers must be prepared to invest considerable effort and time into
the necessary planning and preparation, and this might involve learning skills that are
needed for the participatory elements of the observation. We also posit that researchers
usually have institutional obligation to seek approval from their ethics board or other
relevant bodies prior to conducting any covert research. As we hope to indicate,
conducting a covert participant observation can be laborious and requires extreme care
before, during and after a research project.
Getting in: False identities and real skills
As Berlin (1995, p. 381) stated of covert participant observation, “one of the key
methodological challenges in field research is gaining access to organizations” (see also
Petica-Harris et al., 2016 and Cunliffe & Alcadipani, 2016). Gaining access to perform
a covert participant study therefore requires consideration of how to acquire familiarity
with the site of study, constructing an appropriate identity and then developing the
necessary skills to fit in.
Acquiring familiarity with the site of study: In many of the existing covert
participant observation studies, researchers began by trying to learn as much as possible
about the organization or field of interest in advance of conducting their study. As
Jamieson (2002) points out, particularly when there is a risk of danger or violence, there
is value in visiting research sites prior to conducting the actual research. This allows
researchers to assess and discuss potential risks with colleagues or supervisors as well
as providing more information to support gaining access. For example, Festinger et al.’s
(2008) observations of a cult began by reading a story about a lady’s (Mrs. Keech)
prophecy of the end of the world in a local newspaper. Identifying this as potential
opportunity to field test research into prophecy, two of the authors “called on Mrs
Keech” to “learn whether there were other convinced persons in her orbit of influence”
(Festinger et al., 2008: p. 61). The authors note that “the results of this first visit
encouraged us to go on” (Festinger et al., 2008, p. 61), leading them to hire additional
observers and to then join a group who were actively interested in Mrs. Keech’s ideas.
Constructing a new identity: Invariably, a researcher seeking to perform covert
participant observation will need to be prepared to provide convincing answers to
questions pertaining to their identity or, potentially, to develop and sustain a cover
story. The organization or the field of interest may be secret as in Festinger et al.’s
(2008) exploration of a cult. To ingratiate themselves with the cult required convincing
the cult members that they held the same beliefs. Similarly, research into the police or
the military also required researchers to lie about their identity (Leo, 1995) or the
motive and focus of the research project (Huggins and Haritos-Fatouros, 1994).
Because holding a minority opinion can lead to field exclusion (Clemente & Roulet,
2015), Leo (1995) explained that he disguised his political orientation to obtain the
sympathy of the police officers he was observing. As Alice Goffman (2015) noted, not
only did she have to disguise her identity but become someone else. When asked to
“account for her presence”, the gatekeeper who knew about her real identity introduced
her to the group as his “sister” or “godsister” (2009, p. 341; 2015, p. 228). She also
mentioned to the subjects that she lived nearby (201, p. 228).
Disguising one identity whilst potentially developing another will require
preparation. At its most straightforward, this may necessitate a researcher being able to
convince a senior employee in an initial interview that they would like to work for the
organization they seek to study, without revealing their research goals. In Berlin’s
(1995) study, for example, when asked why she wanted to work there by the human
resource manager, she spoke of her admiration of the organization and, it can be
inferred from the article, assured the manager of her loyalty to the organization.
Developing the necessary skills: Covert observation can also call for more
complex preparation, particularly for participation in professional or technical roles in
which specific skills are needed. For instance, to work alongside and observe
accountants and auditors requires that the researcher possess relevant competences,
without which they are likely to be kept away from the organization’s life (Sullivan,
1959; Stenger & Roulet, 2014). It is possible that researchers could partly ‘fake it’
(Roth, 1959), though this could harm their credibility, and their ability to observe.
Nonetheless, it is highly likely that a researcher performing covert observation will have
to have provide answers to questions concerning their identity from some of the
individuals they are studying.
There are a number of options available to researchers to support the
construction of a credible identity. The first is to draw on relevant experiences. To get
hired and to work as a factory worker at Subaru, whilst conducting covert observation,
Graham (1995) built upon previous experiences as a factory worker, so as not to appear
as an outsider. The second is to complete the training necessary to appear competent in
a relevant role. Sullivan et al. (1958) noted that they had to complete nine months of
training before being able to enlist themselves in the military program they sought to
observe. The third is to recruit fellow researchers who possess the relevant capabilities
to present a credible identity. Bernstein (2012), for example, employed three of his
Chinese undergraduate students to conduct his study of a Chinese production line,
rather than participate himself. As he explained, “the students’ personal characteristics
were typical of new recruits, and the extraordinary diversity of the migrant labor pool
meant that the students’ small idiosyncrasies and any potential lingual accents went
unnoticed. As college students, the researchers’ age approximated the age of the
average recruit, allowing them to blend in.” (Bernstein, 2012, p. 185).
Recording data surreptitiously
Being a participant, and thus performing a specific role within the organization, may
prevent the participant observer from recording data in more conventional ways.
Furthermore, this needs to be done without raising the suspicion of the observed
participants. Formal interviews, where participants are directly asked for their account
of the investigated topic or collection of archival data are not always possible without
receiving unwanted attention (Burgess, 1984). For example, Thorne (1980) discusses
how in his research on the illegal draft resistance movement, asking questions and
taking notes led many of the participants in his study to suspect him of being a federal
agent thereby limiting his access to data and putting him at risk. As a result, covert
participant observation usually generates informal data and research field-notes rather
than concrete quotes (Vinten, 1994). Erving Goffman (1961) also reports a number of
difficulties in collecting data through a covert participant observation. For example, he
stressed that he had to rely more heavily on his memory, as he could not take note at
every moment of his observation.
Approaches to collect and record data during covert participant observation:
One of the most common approach to recording data during covert observation is to
employ a field diary, as Goffman (1961) did, to record observations at the end of the
day. Dalton (1959) also relied heavily on work diaries. Diaries are particularly helpful
for qualitative researchers to help them “reflexively notice their noticing” (Hibbert, et
al. 2014: 286). Researchers can create opportunities to write their notes by ‘slipping
away’ and finding places where they will be alone such as going for a walk (Festinger,
2008) or to the bathroom (Berlin, 1995). Creative or improvised ways to collecting data
may also emerge, such as Graham’s (1995) use of a clipboard she used to carry out her
daily job on the production line also enabling her to record observations. Stenger and
Roulet (Forthcoming), for example, explain how the researcher would use Word to take
field notes, making supervisors think he was working.
The process of recording notes can be managed more easily when operating in
a research team. For instance, Festinger et al. (2008, p. 250) noted that “when all of our
observers were very fatigued and unwilling to trust their memory too much, one would
go make notes while the others stayed to listen”. Bernstein (2012) waited for his team
to report to him in an isolated room, as the observers would take advantage of bathroom
breaks to visit him. He would record their regular reports and have a debriefing with
them at the end of the day on the basis of the transcripts he had produced. The observers
were then “given a chance to confirm or challenge each other’s perspectives”
(Bernstein, 2012; 187).
Collecting data beyond the covert participant observation: Observation data
may also be complemented with interviews at the time of exiting the field. Clarke
(1996) notes that observation can provide basic insights, that can be then used to guide
interviews in which the researcher can more overtly bring before the participants to
discuss some aspects of their experience. After the covert participant observation,
Bernstein (2012) took advantage of a debriefing and the observers revealing their true
identity to deliver a survey and exit interviews. Bernstein (2012: 187) notes
“surprisingly positive” reaction from the subjects. Covert participant observation can
provide data that can be consequently triangulated and validated using other overt
approaches such as interviews.
Reducing harm to participants
There are risks to the participants who are studied covertly. Clarke (1999, p. 155)
highlights two harms that may occur when the infiltration of a group leads to a research
output such as a publication in the public domain. First, the unwitting participants will
typically suffer from feelings of betrayal if they realize that a person, whom they may
have trusted, was in fact a researcher studying them. Second, whatever benefits they
derived from being secretive may be lost should their activities become public. This is
likely to be particularly true of marginal groups. It is therefore essential that a researcher
considers the risks to their participants and, where possible, seeks to employ strategies
to minimize potential harm.
Debriefings: Clarke (1999) claims that the most important strategy to reduce the
harm to participants is debriefing, which is compulsory for researchers who adhere to
the American Psychological Association’s standard on deception in research (for an
overview of the key aspects of a de-brief see Sieber, 1983a). Lauder (2003) also
mentions debriefing sessions as a way to reveal one’s identity as a researcher at the end
of a study and Bernstein (2012) used it as such. Nonetheless, this is typically
recommended for deception experiments that occur in a laboratory or controlled setting.
When debriefing, the researcher can share the original purpose of the research. In some
case, there can be some direct insightful findings for the subjects. For instance,
Milgram’s follow up study with his participants a year later indicated that 98.7% of his
participants found the study and debriefing to be worthwhile experiences, as they were
made aware of the danger of obedience and the importance of challenging authority
(Sieber, 1983b). In contrast, Humphreys (1970) did not provide participants with a de-
briefing at any stage of his covert participant observation. Sieber (1983b, p. 5) suggests
of Humphreys decision that “[m]ost people would agree that this was the right decision,
since de-briefing would have horrified some of his subjects and their subsequent
worries might have been life-long.”
Preserving anonymity: Given that de-briefing may not always be appropriate or
advisable in a field setting, a further way to reduce the risk of participants being
adversely affected is to ensure their anonymity throughout the research process (Queen,
1959). This also means ensuring that is not possible to identify or deduce the identity
of the participants in the study in any associated research outputs. It is quite common
that respondents are aware of the specific characteristics that make them identifiable by
their stakeholders and thus request from the researcher a special degree of care (Shymko
& Roulet, Forthcoming). Even in Humphreys’ extreme form of covert participant
observation, he stressed his desire to protect those he observed. He noted that “I have
tried to make it impossible for any close associate to recognize the real people behind
the disguised composites portrayed in this article” (Humphreys, 1970, p. 25).
Leaving the site of study
Many researchers who have employed covert participant observation have struggled to
identify when they should leave their study or have found leaving a challenging
experience. Reflecting on his own experiences of researching mental health wards, with
seemingly ambiguous consent, Taylor (1991) highlighted the need to consider the
practical issue of when a study is complete as well as the personal issue of the
relationships formed with a researcher’s participants.
Completing the study: Covert studies seek to develop a deep understanding of a
particular field and the embedded participants. Most established methodologies offer
guidance on when to conclude the data collection necessary to build this understanding.
For example, grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) provides the concept of
theoretical saturation. The underlying premise of this and other principles of collecting
qualitative data is that the researcher should stop when no new insights are generated
and the data becomes repetitive. This is an important point to reflect on in covert studies
and this point has been applied to Humphreys’ work (1970): he could have left the field
of study earlier (Sieber, 1983b).
Managing the personal relationships formed with participants by easing out:
As Taylor (1991, p. 238) points out, leaving the field is not simply a matter of wrapping
up a study, but of “dealing with a change in how one relates to the people one has
studied”. Indeed, many covert studies report the development of friendships and
forming close bonds with the participants being observed (e.g., Calvey, 2006; Goffman,
2015). To many of these researchers, their research can become all-encompassing.
Alice Goffman (2015), for example, explained how she struggled to go back to her
normal life after her participant observation. It is thus important for researchers to
consider their departure not just in the practical terms of when they have collected
sufficient data but also in terms of their relationships with participants.
When a researcher seeks to conclude their data collection, other scholars have
suggested that they should ‘ease out’ of the study (Junker, 1960), that is gradually
reduce the frequency of their interactions with the field. Whilst this advice is typically
applied to overt studies, we believe it remains valid for most covert studies. Cutting off
contact too abruptly is likely to alert the participants to the absence of the researcher
and, possibly, to raise concerns for the wellbeing of the researcher. A gradual departure
therefore also necessitates the researcher providing an explanation or justification for
the reduction of contact. For example, Calvey’s (2008, p. 911) covert research – where
he acted as a bouncer or nightclub doorman in the same city as his research institution
– meant that he often bumped into former colleagues, to whom he would explain he
was in “early retirement” or that he “couldn’t stand the pace any more”. Thus gradually
easing out of the study, whilst also providing an explanation as to why, allows covert
researchers to gradually ‘drift off’ (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) from their participants
without arousing suspicion.
Approval from ethics boards
Researchers are likely to face significant institutional constraints in seeking to conduct
covert participation observation. University ethical boards, institutional review boards,
professional associations or other key stakeholders may refuse to approve covert
participant observation (Becker, 2008), for example when inadequately justified. As
Tope et al. (2005, p. 473) point out, “institutional review boards have become
increasingly reluctant to grant human subjects clearance for qualitative research
involving the sort of open protocols typical of observation, and particularly participant
observation.” Indeed, as MacSuibhne (2011, p. 1) noted of Goffman’s research into
psychiatric hospitals “it is doubtful [that the study] would get through an ethics
committee today.” Such reservations stem from a often legitimate desire to minimize
liabilities. Some ethical boards and professional codes of ethics may be inadvertently
restricting research in ways that seem more likely to limit research than to protect
subject and informant rights. In the meantime, some scientific outlets do not necessarily
check for the ethical standards of the research or whether consent has been duly
collected, even when the association they are affiliated to state strict guidelines. As
such, ethical review board play a vital role in protecting researchers and their host
institutions but also the participants and wider research profession. We suggest that
researchers should, therefore, engage with these boards when developing their research
plans. Although we have demonstrated the value and precedent set by prior covert
studies, and outlined different ethical frameworks to consider this value, there are
further ways to make a case and strengthen requests to employ this method.
Post-observation consent: One option, in accordance with the ethics code of
some professional associations (e.g., the APA), is to seek agreement from ethical boards
to allow consent from participants following the collection of data. This would require
detailed and thoughtful consideration of the post-observation and de-briefing processes.
Participant observation in this case has remained covert, but the debriefing ensures that
deception was limited in time and that there is a feedback process. Such an approach,
however, raises a number of risks. Participants may react negatively, and if they refuse
to provide their consent, a large amount of data might be non-usable. Furthermore, de-
briefing may not always be appropriate or an available option when it would jeopardize
the researcher’s safety.
Using the two-dimensional aspects of consent: A further option is to carefully
consider the breadth and depth of the consent required for a proposed study. The earlier
notion of a continuum of consent or dimensions of deception (see Figure 1) is important
here because it underpins the idea that researchers can capture consent in a variety of
different ways. It also stresses the practical challenges inherent to all observational
studies, and can thus help ethical boards put covert observation into perspective with
previously approved research projects for which consent was more or less pervasive.
For instance, consent can be secured at the institutional level from ethical boards or
universities, the organizational level through managers or other gatekeepers as well as
at the individual level from the participants themselves. An observational study does
not necessarily have to be simplified to as purely covert or purely overt. Ethics boards
and researchers can work together to explore this idea and to identify effective ways to
protect participants by blending covert and overt aspects of a study (for an example of
jointly developed approach to observation, see Oeye et al., 2007).
Making a consequentialist case: As we previously discussed, the most common
ethical justification is based on a consequentialist argument. Covert research is
acceptable if the social benefits outweighs the cost to the participants (Lauder, 2003).
Researchers can use such a justification to convince ethical boards by explaining how
the harm to the recipients is minimized (e.g., stressing the preservation of anonymity),
and how the positive social impact is considerable. Although covert research commonly
refer to consequential arguments, they rarely list the actual benefits of the study in a
rigorous and exhaustive manner. Leo (1995) claims his work unveiled police officers’
misconduct and abuse of power, and can ultimately both contribute to better policing
and a fairer society. In the case of the Bernstein’s study (2012), the moral case for the
transparency paradox is limited, although it can be beneficial for the organization’s
efficiency. Indeed, as this research suggests the workers on the factory line can improve
processes, it can convince managers to trust their employees and give them more
autonomy. Thus, when pitching their project to ethical boards, covert researchers could
explain how each stakeholder can benefit from the project. This justification can also
be useful in the methods section of the papers themselves so that future covert
researchers can build upon those justifications to make a case with their ethical boards.
Table 4 summarizes each of the practical considerations of covert participant
observation in terms of techniques to address each challenge, associated risks and
benefits alongside illustrative examples. It is important to stress that not all of the
proposed techniques may be applicable or possible in all covert studies.
Please insert table 4 about here
Due to the profound role of covert research in shaping social science both historically
(e.g., Festinger, 1957; Goffman, 1961) and more recently (e.g., Goffman 2009; 2015),
many professional academic associations in psychology and sociology continue to
permit the use of deceptive approaches, including covert research in specific
circumstances. This permission reflects the belief that sometimes covert research can
be justified by the prospect of significant scientific, educational, or applied value.
In an effort to support the realization of similar value within the field of
management and organizational studies, where covert studies remain rare, we have
focused on covert participant observation. Covert participant observation can enable
researchers to gain access to communities or organizations and to collect knowledge
that would otherwise remain unavailable. In some situations, covert participant
observation can help create knowledge to change society for the better (Lauder, 2003)
or open entirely new fields of inquiry for social scientists (Goffman, 1961).
Nonetheless, the justification of covert methods is context dependent (Oliver &
Eales, 2008) and brings with it many potential criticisms alongside risks to participants
and researchers. As such, the aforementioned benefits of covert participant observation
are only available to researchers who can carefully justify their use of the method,
consider thoroughly the participant observation processes and ensure the anonymity
and protection of their participants. To support researchers in considering covert
methods and their implications, we suggest that all observational studies are situated
along a two-dimensional continuum of participant consent: the breadth of the observed
subjects knowing about the researcher’s identity matters as much as the depth of their
understanding of the research’s purpose. Observational studies are rarely fully covert
or fully overt but, instead, usually situated somewhere between these two poles. Thus,
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FIGURE 1 – TWO-DIMENSIONS OF DECEIT: A CONTINUUM BETWEEN FULLY COVERT AND OVERT PARTICIPANT
TABLE 1 – BENEFITS OF COVERT PARTICIPANT OBSERVATION: EXEMPLARS FROM THE SOCIAL SCIENCES
Gaining access to secretive / secret
Uncovering secret (unmodified)
Being a pure
Part of a multi-
other data or
Access to the site
Men who manage
No, Dalton could have accessed the
organization without being covert.
Yes, Dalton accessed secret parts of
organizational life, including
Yes, it helped Dalton
collect useful insights.
Yes, Dalton clearly
explains the refinement
of his research question
as he moves forward.
On the line at
accessed a non-union
Yes, Graham did not
Yes, Graham exposed how the company
did not play by its espoused rules.
Yes, Graham worked
alongside workers and
consequences of work
No, access was
granted by the firm.
No, the organization
was the gatekeeper
and let Bernstein
carry out the
Yes, observers were
integrated as factory
Yes, Bernstein tested his
hypothesis with a field
Dirty work and the
identity (Morales &
Yes, they would not
have accessed the
field is overt about
Yes, for the same
reason they would not
have been granted
while their daily
Yes, they were able to
Liminal space in a
SOE (Postula &
Yes, the researchers
did not have to ask
for the permission of
Yes, the authors
argument that the
behaviors to be
not have been
made visible to
(Van Maanen, 1979)
No, access was
Yes, policing is a
field in which
less likely to
Yes, the researcher
wanted to experience
Yes, the qualitative
On the Run
Yes, Goffman would
not have been able to
collect the same
amount of data if she
was broadly identified
as a researcher.
routines of her
shows the abuse
Yes, Goffman was
legitimate despite her
differences with the
Yes, Goffman would
not have been able to
the hidden reality of
would have made this
reality of mental
expresses a radical
critique of the
treatment of mental
Yes, the users of the
differently to a
The tearoom trade
Yes, the researcher
could not have
accessed the field
without faking his
posing as a
Yes, the researcher
presented himself as
an initiate, enabling
him to collect better
Observation in a
conversion helped the
researcher observe the
natural behaviors of
were making this
studies a deviant
Yes, the participants
are presented as
dangerous for the
Yes, the participants
when they thought the
researcher was one of
Yes, Lauder alternates
between covert and overt
When prophecy fails
(Festinger, et al.
Yes, there was no
other way to study
would have made this
Yes, the participants
are engaged in
Yes, the cult members
would not have let a
researcher study them.
TABLE 2 – ETHICAL PERSPECTIVES TAKEN BY PROFESSIONAL ASSOCIATIONS
Reference to deceptive approaches
Management Code of
Ethics (2006) - Code
The research needs to respect “the privacy, dignity, well-being and
freedom of research participants” and requires that that “written or oral
consent, permission, and assent are documented appropriately”
Deontological Kantian approach: others
are considered as ends and never as means
and their dignity and autonomy need to be
Association (1999) -
Code of Ethics
“sociologists may need to conceal their identities in order to undertake
research that could not practicably be carried out were they to be known
“Sociologists do not use deceptive techniques unless they have
determined that their use will not be harmful to research participants; is
justified by the study’s prospective scientific, educational, or applied
value; and that equally effective alternative procedures that do not use
deception are not feasible”
Consequentialism with a focus on both the
research itself and its scientific value
(deception is acceptable if no other option
are available) and its social value.
Association (2010) -
“the use of deceptive techniques [can be] justified by the study's
significant prospective scientific, educational, or applied value”
Scholars must be able to “justify the value” of the research.
Consequentialism with a focus on the
positive consequences of the research: If
the social benefits of the research
outweigh the cost, deception is acceptable.
Association of Social
(2011) – Ethics
Acknowledgement that the researcher “may be able to provide only
rough approximations in advance
of some of the likely participants” and “Given the open-ended and often
long-term nature of fieldwork, ethical decision-making has to be
undertaken repeatedly throughout the research and in response to
“the interests and rights of those studied should come first” and
Situated ethics: Covert research is
acceptable in some contexts, on the
conditions that the researcher constantly
questions the ethicality of his/her action
and research, and its consequences.
“Work for state or non-state organisations that is covert, and therefore
breaches relations of trust and openness, is especially problematic. Overt
work that is only possible because the participants are subject to
coercion is also likely to breach basic ethical standards.”
TABLE 3 – A GUIDE OF SITUATED ETHICS FOR THE COVERT PARTICIPANT OBSERVER
Specific ethical questions
Illustration of ethical reflexivity
Lying and deceiving –
“Who am I?”
Did I have to change my identity? To disguise it?
Did I lie to enter the field? To what point do I
need to lie?
If a gatekeeper knows about my purpose, how he
or she is presenting me to other participants?
Matthew Lauder (2003: 191) “feign[ed] conversion to the group’s
worldview and pretend[ed] wholeheartedly the white nationalist
cause” and “altered the emphasis of the project”. The research
purpose was not hidden, but the researcher disguised his
conviction. The researcher posited that the deception that was
necessary to be able to observe the controversial behaviors.
Being neutral – “What
can I do?”
Did I engage in a reprehensive behavior to ensure
Does my behavior contribute to changing the
course of action in the observed field? Am I
personally interested in the consequence of my
action in the field?
Am I putting participants in a different situation
than if I hadn’t been there?
Alice Goffman (2015) chased a suspected murderer to take
revenge, and considered selling drugs or engaging in other
criminal activities as part of her participant observation.
She reflects back on those actions and for the most critical ones,
she acknowledges having been driven away from her original
ethos as a researcher.
Testifying - “What can
What will be the consequences of my research for
the participants? Will it harm them in some way?
Will I affect the existing relationships between
How is the anonymity of participants preserved?
Ethan Bernstein’s (2012) observers revealed their identity at the
end of the observation, debriefed the study and administered
interviews and questionnaire.
The results as reported to the firm might have consequence on the
way employees are monitored, and the way their feedback is
integrated in the production processes.
TABLE 4 – PRACTICAL CHALLENGES AND TECHNIQUES FOR THE COVERT PARTICIPANT OBSERVER
Developing a cover
story: The observer may
lack the identity necessary
to gain access or be
accepted into the site of
•!Draw on relevant
training or research
who possess the
•!Developing a ‘cover’
can represent a
of time prior to the
and energy to
maintain this image
•!The researcher would
have a better
understanding of the
•!Sullivan et al. (1958)
months of military
training to enlist in
the military program
they sought to
•!Graham (1995) built
up on her experience
as a factory worker.
notes overtly might
hamper actual observation
and risk revealing the
•!Complete a field
diary at the end of
to ‘slip away’ to
•!Operate in a research
•!Create or improvise
mean of data
•!The researcher might
be caught red-handed
•!The researcher does
not have to rely solely
on his/her memory
•!Graham (1995) used a
clipboard to disguise
•!Stenger & Roulet
(2014) used a word
document to take
participation in an
•!Conduct a debriefing
decide to withdraw
from the study, leaving
the observer with no
•!Additional data can be
collected and used in
the context of an
revealed their identity
and debriefed the
participants in the daily
Reducing harm to
participants: There are
risks to the participants
who are studied covertly,
which must be managed
•!It might be risky for
the researcher to
reveal his/her identity
(the participants may
be violent in some
cases, cf. Lauder,
•!It might be useful to
•!It might be interesting
to involve participants
in the analysis of the
data (Islam, 2015).
work meeting. They
then conducted in-
disguising the field
and participants of the
concerns by violating
the informed consent
•!It might not always be
possible to maintain
anonymity e.g., if
asked to testify in
court (cf. Leo, 1995)
•!Reduces risk of losing
data, as participants
cannot choose to
allowing difficult or
socially sensitive areas
of research to be
•!Provides an option
when debriefing is not
possible or appropriate
anonymized the firm
Leaving the site of study:
consider the practical and
personal issues of leaving
procedures to capture
sufficient data (e.g.,
•!‘Ease out’ whilst
may draw attention to
experience guilt or a
loss of social bonds
•!The researcher can
draft away from the
research site and
drawing too much
attention to themselves
and provided a
Approval from ethics
boards: Researchers may
constraints in seeking to
•!Demonstrate the value
and precedent set by
prior covert studies
application of de-
ethics boards to move
notions of consent
argument to justify the
social benefits of the
•!Ethics boards or other
key stakeholders may
not support the
thereby inhibiting the
•!Approval from ethical
boards or other key
stakeholders serves to
protect both the
researcher and the
•!Oeye et al. (2007)
constraints of review
boards and reflect on
Thomas J. Roulet is an organization theorist based at King's College, London. His
work combines quantitative and qualitative approaches. He uses institutional and
stakeholder theories to study social evaluations (in particular the negative ones such as
stigma and disapproval) and ethics in professional service firms and cultural fields.
Michael J. Gill is an associate professor in the School of Management, University of
Bath. His research interests lie in emotions and identities, professional service firms
and qualitative research methods.
Sebastien Stenger is an assistant professor in accounting and management control at
Institut Superieur de Gestion (ISG) in Paris. His work focuses on the sociology of
David James Gill is an associate professor in the School of Politics and International
Relations, University of Nottingham. His research
focuses on economic history and strategic studies