Covert Participant Observation

When thinking about observations, many people think of a guy judging people in his notepad. But there are some researchers who use participant observation as a way to gain data. This style of observation consists of the researcher joining their subjects in their activities overtly or covertly, in other words “putting yourself in their shoes”. But is this covert observation a good way to collect data?

When conducting observations, every researcher wishes for natural behaviour, but this is hard to come by when people know you’re watching them. Many subjects will experience a reactivity, otherwise known as the Hawthorne Effect, whereby people will change or improve their behaviour, due to the fact that they are aware of being watched. Covert observation ensures that people act as they usually would, even when being watched, as they are unaware that they are being studied. This, therefore, reduces demand characteristics and increases the validity of data. By taking part in the activities and culture of the subjects, researchers can gain a much better quality of understanding of how things work, and why certain people do what they do. Participant observation gives first hand insight into the lives of others, and a much deeper knowledge than what can be gaged by simple surveys. This can form the basis for further research into certain cultures, especially from those covertly observed who wouldn’t otherwise consent to being studied. However, this of course leads onto the problem of lack of informed consent. If people are being watched secretly then chances are they haven’t agreed to take part in the study. This breaches ethical guidelines, and many people see this as a complete no-go area. But there are other experiments that have broken guidelines, yet are deemed okay if the participants are fully debriefed afterwards, so why shouldn’t covert observations be treated the same way? So long as subjects are debriefed and they give their consent for their data to be used, I feel it’s okay to observe covertly (granted it’s not the most ethical way).

However, as with everything, covert participant observation has its disadvantages. Firstly, it’s time-consuming and costly, which is a massive pain in the arse, but it can also be dangerous. For the researchers who feel the need to study gang violence (not so sure I’d fancy that job), covert participant observation essentially involves them joining a gang, and doing their best to be a member. This can result in the researcher being involved in dangerous or illegal activities. An example of this type of research is “A Glasgow Gang Observed” by “James Patrick” (not real name). This involved Patrick entering a gang which carried weapons and often fought other rivals. Although keeping his identity hidden for four months, Patrick eventually had to leave when the violence became too unacceptable for him, and he began to feel threatened. Of course not all groups are violent and dangerous, and so some researchers may “go native” if they accept the group’s culture. This term refers to the researcher becoming a full-time member of the group, which can lead to a bias of notes, as the researcher may portray the group in a different way, and therefore negatively affect the validity of the data.

Personally, I feel that covert participant observation is a great way to collect data, as it ensures what is being observed is natural behaviour, and can give a great depth into the understanding of different groups and cultures. However, I think it is absolutely necessary to fully debrief subjects and gain their consent to use their data, in order to regain a little bit of ethics back. Also, so long as researchers don’t go to the extremes of terribly violent gangs, or fantastically brilliant groups, there should be very little chance of danger or a complete change of lifestyle for the researcher.

Thanks for reading 🙂


11 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. larabarker
    Feb 20, 2012 @ 19:20:11

    One of the main disadvantages to covert participant research can be the extensive time it takes to prepare for the role. This is shown in a study where David Calvey went undercover as a bouncer in Manchester. Prior to him becoming a bouncer, he trained in martial arts for years for self protection, and completed ‘DoorSafe’ a door staff training course (Danger in the field: risk and ethics in social research
    By Geraldine Lee-Treweek, Stephanie Linkogle). Some covert roles can be complicated, and expert training and knowledge in a specific area are needed to increase the safety of the participating research.


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  3. emily2904
    Feb 21, 2012 @ 10:25:45

    Even if the covert study receives ethical approval, as you have stated this is an issue due to lack of informed consent and deception. There are some others issues that can occur once the researcher is in the field setting, relationships can be formed and due to the long nature of some of these studies, this can have a serious affect on the results of the study. It can also be incredibly difficult for the researcher to maintain the levels of deceit, and the strain put upon the researcher can also affect the quality of the study. So although i do agree that they are an excellent way to receive natural data, first the ethical issues need to be allowed. Then it is all these other factors to do with the researcher that can affect the results. There is also an issue that the data collected is qualitative, this means it can be hard to get consistent results that can be easily compare in future observations.


  4. PSUD00
    Feb 22, 2012 @ 17:56:11

    I agree that when it comes to covert observations they are very useful. You can observe a person without them trying to improve their behaviour therefore you see what they are actually like and their natural behaviour. It may not be the most ethical way but as long as a full debrief and consent for the data to be used is obtained I see no problem. However, some people may not see it that way. Some people may see covert observation as a violation of privacy and in some cases would not have wanted you to see what they have done. Once you have seen something you cannot take it back and this “participant” may be very unhappy.
    There can also be some issues with reliability and validity when it comes to covert observation. Because the observer must remain undercover in order of the covert observation to be covert they cannot be seen to be taking notes on other people or recording data. This means we must have a lot more trust in the researcher as we cannot be sure if what is written in the data is exactly what they saw. ( What if the researcher forgot something? What if they misinterpreted something? What if they missed something? This puts the reliability and the validity of the data into question.


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  6. penguinsandcheese
    Feb 22, 2012 @ 20:26:42

    While I agree that it is a good way to catch people in their natural environment and be assured that they behave the way that they usually would, I feel that this may break a lot of guideline. No informed consent, no protection from harm (as when they find out they may feel very betrayed and not know whether to trust their group again) and obvious deception. For me, the protection from harm one is the biggy. I know that with the right debrief, people will know what’s gone on and they can always say no to having their data included, but imagine knowing that you’ve been watched. Some people may be very shy and it has taken them a lot of work to get out and join in an activity, only to be betrayed. Some people may become paranoid of it happening again. There are far too many things that could mess with a participant’s life after the study.


  7. psud24
    Feb 22, 2012 @ 20:35:37

    I agree that covert observation has both it’s postives and negatives but I beleive that it is the best way to research. I especially think it is relevant within children. If children are aware they are being observed, they can act both preferrably and negatively. I think the main issue with covert observation is that it is very difficult to get more than one participant observing at the same time. As a result of this, biases become much more prevelant as there is no-one there to spot the errors the researcher is comitting. A way to counter this would be to record all interactions while covertly observing but this can lead to two large problems as far as I can see. Firstly, to fully analyse the data, the entire video/recording must be viewed which can be time consuming and costly. Secondly, if a researcher is found to be on possession of recording materials that they have not disclosed, there could be problems with people finding out. In the example of the gang, I can imagine they would not be very happy with an outsider filming their actions. Also, within observing children there is a lot of issues regarding using hidden filming equipment. I believe that covert observation is the best way to view people in the real world but because of the logistical troubles that occur with it, it is simply not feasible to use covert observation all of the time.


  8. ksgs
    Mar 11, 2012 @ 21:18:24

    Eventhough covert participant observation stirred much debate and controversy on research ethics, mainly regarding the absence of informed consent and the deception (Bulmer, 1980, 1982; Dingwall, 1980; M. L. Wax, 1979), several studies had been conducted using covert observation method. For example Laud Humphries used covert observation method to study homosexual encounters (Tearoom Trade, 1970).
    Another example would be that of Leon Festinger and his colleagues where they pretended to become adherents to a religious cult`s belief but actually observed it covertly (When Prophecy Fails, 1956). Erving Goffman (1968) also did a covert participation observation, which was called as “stigma”. During this study he was working by posing as an Assistant Athletic Director in an asylum for the mentally ill.

    According to my opinion covert participant observation is wrong eventhough there are several advantages. I personally would not like to be a participant of a covert observation.


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  10. psuae5
    Mar 12, 2012 @ 11:07:55

    I agree that overt observation has a high risk of the Hawthorne effect, but often the effect is only temporary, but many people don’t realise this because textbooks hardly ever state its temporary effect. (Olson, Verley, Santos & Salas, 2004) Therefore overt observation can be just as beneficial as covert observation. When security cameras were installed in a workplace, work performance increased by 15 units. However, once workers became accustomed to the cameras, work performance decreased to its original number of units. (Jinnai, 2008) Workers typical behaviour could then be observed and therefore, I think although there is risk of the Hawthorne effect, overt observation can be just as beneficial as covert observation when it’s only a temporary effect.

    Olson, Verley, Santos, and Salas (2004) What We Teach Students About the Hawthorne Studies: A Review of Content Within a Sample of Introductory I-O and OB Textbooks

    Jinnai (2008)


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