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Reconsidering the value of covert research: the role of ambiguous consent in participant observation

Roulet, Thomas; Gill, Michael; Stenger, Sebastien; Gill, David James

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Thomas Roulet

Michael Gill

Sebastien Stenger

Professor of International Relations


In this article, we provide a nuanced perspective on the benefits and costs of covert research. In particular, we illustrate the value of such an approach by focusing on covert participant observation. We posit that all observational studies sit along a continuum of consent, with few research projects being either fully overt or fully covert due to practical constraints and the ambiguous nature of consent itself. With reference to illustrative examples, we demonstrate that the study of deviant behaviors, secretive organizations and socially important topics is often only possible through substantially covert participant observation. To support further consideration of this method, we discuss different ethical perspectives and explore techniques to address the practical challenges of covert participant observation, including; gaining access, collecting data surreptitiously, reducing harm to participants, leaving the site of study and addressing ethical issues.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Feb 16, 2017
Online Publication Date Mar 23, 2017
Publication Date Jul 31, 2017
Deposit Date Mar 7, 2017
Publicly Available Date Mar 23, 2017
Journal Organizational Research Methods
Print ISSN 1094-4281
Electronic ISSN 1552-7425
Publisher SAGE Publications
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 20
Issue 3
Pages 487-517
Keywords Covert research, Covert participant observation, Field observation, Ethics in research, Qualitative research
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Additional Information © 2017 by SAGE Publications


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