The strengths and limitations of covert participant observation

Covert Observation may be the only way you can gain access to deviant groups but there are SEVERAL limitations too…

Last Updated on November 23, 2022 by Karl Thompson

Covert participant observation or ethnography is where the researcher does not reveal that he is actually a researcher.

There are different degrees to which ethnographic research may be covert – fully covert research is where every member of the group being studied believes the researcher to be ‘one of them’ and no one has any idea that the researcher is actually a researcher conducting research.

However, many ‘covert’ studies are actually only partially covert – in some studies researchers may reveal themselves to some participants but not others: Ditton (1977) had to this during her research on ‘fiddling’ in a bakery – she kept making frequent visits to the toilet in order to get off the bakery-line and take field notes about recent, interesting conversations. Some participants became concerned about her and so she had to ‘out’ herself to those people (but not others) so as to maintain her position there.

Examples of covert participation

  • Lloyd’s (2012) research while employed in a call centre in Middlesborough
  • Pearson’s (2009) research study on football hooligans
  • Matley’s (2006) research on a sex fantasy phone line
  • The BBC (2003) documentary ‘The Secret Policeman’ – investigating police racism. This is journalistic rather than sociological, but just so interesting.
  • Macintyre’s (1999) BBC documentary on football hooligans – again,  journalistic rather than sociological, but it does tie in nicely with Pearson’s research.
  • Patrick’s (1973) study on a violent Glasgow gang
  • Humphries (the one and only): Tea Room Trade.

Advantages of covert participant observation

  • Gaining access, especially to closed groups, is much easier because the researcher does not have to seek permission.
  • Reactivity is not a problem – if respondents are not aware research is taking place, they are less likely to act differently.

Disadvantages of covert participant observation

  • The problem of taking field notes – it is almost impossible to take notes as you go when in a covert role. In his study of football hooligans, Pearson had to take notes as soon after the matches as possible, but admits that much information was probably forgotten.
  • You can’t use other methods – if you’re in a covert role, you have to act as the natives do without raising suspicion, and you can hardly whip our your social survey or start doing probing-interviews, because that’s not normal. (unless you’re researching social researchers who spend their lives researching each other).
  • Stress – the covert researcher is under constant pressure due to having to ‘maintain a front’ (frontstage, if you like) and on top of this has to then record data back-stage – it’s like working two jobs. Add to this the worry of having your cover blown, and the fact that if this happens, the entire project may be down the drain, and that’s a lot of stress.
  • Ethical problems – Covert research does not allow for the participants to give informed consent, because it involves deception. There is also the issue of privacy being violated, and the fact that some researchers may have to engage in criminal acts in order to not blow their cover, as in the case of Pearson’s research with football hooligans.

SignPosting and Related Posts:

Covert Participant Observation is one of the main methods taught as part of the social research methods module within A-level sociology.

You might also like this post on participant observation more generally: Participant Observation in Social Research

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Bryman (2016) Social Research Methods)

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