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.
Some good examples of covert participation include:
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.
Participant observation is one the main research methods on the A level sociology syllabus, but many of the examples in the main text books are painfully out of date. This post provides some more recent examples of research studies which employed participant observation as their main research method.
Covert Participant Observation
Pearson’s (2009) covert participant observation study of Blackpool Football Club’s supporters
Pearson carried out covert participant observation of supporters of Blackpool Football Club between 1995 and 1998. He was known to other supporters as a student pursuing a degree in law, but his status as an academic researcher was unknown to them. His approach was to meet up with them in the pub before a match or sometimes on entering the stadium, and to meet up with them afterwards for a drink. He attended seventy-eight matches but notes that because he did not live in the area, he was unable to observe the supporters outside of a football context.
He chose Blackpool F.C. because it was close to Lancaster, where he was a student, and because of its reputation as having problems with football hooliganism. He seems to have been able to gradually insinuate himself into the supporters’ world by being recognised as a regular fan. Pearson played up his knowledge of the game and the club and was able to integrate himself into their world.
Pearson says of his research…’ whilst it was possible to avoid committing some individual offences, a refusal to commit crimes on a regular basis would have aroused suspicions and reduced research opportunities. As a result I committed ‘minor’ offences (which I tentatively defined as those would not cause direct physical harm to a research subject). My strategy was to commit only the offences which the majority of the research subjects were committing and that I considered necessary to carry out the research. Furthermore, whilst I would commit lesser offences with regularity, I would, if possible, avoid more serious ones.’ (Pearson, 2009).
Pearson’s research is a good example of covert research in which Pearson participated fully with the activities of the group…he was a ‘covert full member’ of the group he was observing.
Overt Participant Observation
Khan’s (2011, 2014) ethnography of an elite high school in the United States
The majority of ethnographic work seems to have been carried out with (on?) the poor and the marginalised, Khan’s work provides us with a rare ethnographic study of an elite institution.
Khan says: ‘ethnography is a method wherein the scholar embeds himself in the relations under study, spending long periods of time with research subjects. For me, it meant getting a job at St. Paul’s School… I moved into an apartment on campus, and… observed the daily life of the school. After my years at St. Paul’s I returned many times, and I sought out alumni to interview and discuss some of the things I’d learned (Khan 2014).
Similarly to Pearson, Khan is also a full member of the group which he is observing, it’s just that his group knows he is doing research.
In contrast to Pearson’s research, this ethnography by Khan illustrates one of the main advantages overt participant observation has over covert: you can carry on collecting data from the respondents afterwards!
Mears’s (2011) ethnography of the world of the fashion model
‘Two and a half years would be spend in participant observation, or more like ‘observant participation’ (a term borrowed from Wacquant 2004) working for both agencies in the full range of modelling work, including five Fashion Weeks, hundreds of castings, and dozens of jobs in every type of modelling work – catwalk shows, magazine shoots in studios and outdoors…. I sat besides bookers at their table in the office drank with them at their favourite pubs, and hung out with them backstage at fashion shows. As I was nearing the end of the participant observation phase… and withdrawing from modelling work, I formally interviewed a sample of bookers, managers and accountants’ (Mears, 2013).
In contrast to Khan’s research, Mears explicitly puts the observation before the participation, which suggests she is less immersed in the day to day life of her group than Kahn was.
Sampson’s (2013) ethnographic research on international seafarers
In April 1999, Sampson boarded her first cargo ship. ‘Contrary to my fears, the crew of Swedish and Filipino seafarers welcomed me into their lives and for forty-two days I lived and worked alongside them, painting the ship with them, venturing ashore to Seamen’s bars with them, laughing with them, even dancing and singing with them’. (2013)
This final example is what Bryman refers to as a ‘participating’ observer’ rather than a ‘full member’ – Sampson is working for the shipping company with the men on a very temporary basis.
The above four examples of participant observation studies are all taken from Bryman’s (2016) research methods book. Bryman ranges several studies (23 in total) on a scale ranging from ‘full member’ through to ‘partially participating observer’ down to ‘non-participating observer with interaction’.
Students might find it interesting to note that the well known study ‘Gang Leader for a Day’ (Venkatesh, 2008) is in Bryman’s ‘minimally participating observer’ category, 17th out of 23rd on the above scale, which makes it closer to a non-participant study! Actually I’ve read it, and I can see his point.
Bryman, Alan (2016) Social Research Methods, Oxford University Press
Participant Observation is where the researcher joins in with the group being studied and observes their behaviour. This post covers the theoretical, practical and ethical strengths and limitations of using overt and covert participant observation in social research.
Participant observation is closely related to the ethnographic method (or ‘ethnography’), which consists of an in-depth study of the way of life of a group of people.
Ethnography is traditionally associated with anthropology, wherein the anthropologist visits a (usually) foreign land, gains access to a group (for example a tribe or village), and spends several years living with them with the aim of uncovering their culture. The ethnographic method involves watching what participants do, listening to them, engaging in probing conversations, and joining them in day to day tasks as necessary; it also involves investigating any cultural artefacts such as art work and any written work if it exists, as well as analysing what religious rituals and popular stories can tell us about the culture. Ethnographic research has traditionally involved taking copious field notes, and the resulting ‘monographs’ which are produced can take several months, if not a year or more to write up.
To cut a long winded definition short, ethnography is basically the same as participant observation, but includes the writing up of a detailed account of one’s findings:
Ethnography = participant observation + a detailed written account of one’s findings.
Participant Observation and the use of other methods
Most participant observers (or ‘ethnographers’) will combine their observations with other methods – most obviously unstructured interviews, and some will combine them with more formal questionnaire based research, normally towards the end of their study period, meaning many of these studies are actually mixed-methods studies. Nonetheless, Participant Observation is still technically classified, for the purposes of A-level sociology as a ‘qualitative’ method.
Overt and Covert Observation
An important distinction in Participation/ Ethnography is between covert and over observation.
OvertObservation – this is where the group being studied know they are being observed.
Covert Observation – this where the group being studied does not know they are being observed, or where the research goes ‘undercover’.
These both have their strengths and limitations – overt research is obviously more ethical because of the lack of deception, and it allows the researcher to ask probing questions and use other research methods. Covert research may be the only way to gain access to deviant groups, it may enable you to gain fuller ‘immersion’ into the host culture and avoids the ‘Hawthorne Effect’. However, ethically it involves deception and can be very stressful for the researcher.
The Strengths of Participant Observation
The most significant strength of both types of participant observation is the high degree of validity the method achieves. There are at least five reasons for this:
You can observe what people do, not what they say they do – In contrast to most other methods, participant observation allows the researcher to see what people do rather than what people say they do.
Participant Observation takes place in natural settings – this should mean respondents act more naturally than in a laboratory, or during a more formal interview. This should mean the Hawthorne effect will be less, especially with covert research. You also get more of a feel for respondents’ actions in context, which might otherwise seem out of place if in an artificial research environment.
Digging deep and gaining insight – the length of time ethnographers spend with a community means that close bonds that can be established, thus enabling the researcher to dig deeper than with other methods and find out things which may be hidden to all other means of enquiry.
Verstehen/empathetic understanding– participant observation allows the researcher to fully join the group and to see things through the eyes (and actions) of the people in group. Joining in allows the researcher to gain empathy through personal experiences. This closeness to people’s reality means that participant observation can give uniquely personal, authentic data.
Flexibility and generating new ideas – when completing questionnaires researchers begin with pre-set questions. Even before starting to collect the data, therefore, the researchers have decided what’s important. The problem with this is what if the questions the researcher thinks are important are not the same as the ones the subject thinks are important. By contrast, participant observation is much more flexible. It allows the researcher to enter the situation with an open mind and as new situations are encountered they can be followed up.
There are few practical advantages with this method, but participant observation might be the only methods for gaining access to certain groups. For example, a researcher using questionnaires to research street gangs is likely to be seen as an authority figure and unlikely to be accepted.
Interpretivists prefer this method because it is respondent led – it allows respondents to speak for themselves and thus avoids a master-client relationship which you get with more quantitative methods.
The Limitations of Participant Observation
One theoretical disadvantage is the low degree of reliability. It would be almost impossible for another researcher to repeat given that a participant observation study relies on the personal skills and characteristics of the lone researcher.
Another theoretical disadvantage is the low degree of representativeness. Sociologists who use quantitative research methods study large, carefully selected, representative samples that provide a sound basis for making generalisations, In contrast, the groups used in participant observation studies are usually unrepresentative, because they are accessed through snowball sampling and thus haphazardly selected.
Critics also question how valid participant observation really is. They argue the method lacks objectivity. It can be very difficult for the researcher to avoid subjectivity and forming biased views of the group being studied. Also researchers decide what is significant and worth recording and what’s not, therefore, it depends on the values of the researcher. In extreme cases, researchers might ‘go native’, where they become sympathatic with the respondents and omit any negative analysis of their way of life.
A further threat to validity is the Hawthorne Effect, where people act differently because they know they are being observed, although participant observers would counter this by saying that people can’t keep up an act over long time periods: they will eventually relax and be themselves.
Also, the methods lack a concept of social structures such as class, gender or ethnicity. By focussing on the participants own interpretation of events, the researcher tends to ignore the wider social structures, which means giving only a partial explanation.
Firstly, this method tends to be time consuming and expensive in relation to the relatively small amount of respondents. It can take time to gain trust and build rapport, and so for this reason, it may take several days, weeks or even months, before the respondents really start to relax in the presence of the researcher.
Participant Observation also requires observational and interpersonal skills that not everyone possesses – you have to be able to get on with people and understand when to take a back seat and when to probe for information.
Gaining access can also be a problem – many people will not want to be researched this way, and where covert research is concerned, researchers are limited by their own characteristics. Not everyone can pass as a Hells Angel if covert observation is being used!
Ethical problems are mainly limited to Covert Participant Observation, in which respondents are deceived and thus cannot give informed consent to participate in the research.
Legality can also be an issue in covert research where researchers working with deviant groups may have to do illegal acts to maintain their cover.
Some advantages of Overt compared to Covert Observation
Students often think that Covert Observation is superior to Over Observation, however there are five reasons why Overt might be a better choice of research method:
1. You can ask awkward, probing questions
2. You can combine it with other methods
3. You can take on the role of the ‘professional stranger’ – respondents might tell you things because they know you are not ‘one of them’
4. It is less stressful and risky for the researcher
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