[We’re pleased to welcome author Thomas Roulet of King’s College, UK. Roulet recently published an article in Organizational Research Methods entitled Reconsidering the Value of Covert Research: The Role of Ambiguous Consent in Participant Observation, co-authored by Michael J. Gill, Sebastien Stenger, and David James Gill. From Roulet:]
What inspired you to be interested in this topic? We were inspired by recent ethnographic work relying heavily on covert observation – for example the recent work by Alice Goffman on low income urban areas, or the paper by Ethan Bernstein on the pitfalls of transparency in a Chinese factory.Alice Goffman’s work was attacked for the ethical challenges associated with the work of ethnographer.
So we went back to the literature and looked at research in various fields that relied on covert observation – the observation of a field of enquiry by a researcher that does not reveal his or her true identity and motives. This methodological approach has progressively fallen into abeyance because of the ethical issues associated with it- in particular the fact that covert observation implies not getting consent from the people observed by the researcher.
Were there findings that were surprising to you? Our review of covert research reveals that:
– all observations have issues with consent to different extent. It is obtain the full consent of all subjects. We put forward a two dimensions
– covert research can be ethically justified when tackling taboo topics, or trying to uncover misbehaviors.
– there is a wide range of ways and practices that can be used to minimize ethical concerns and limit the harm to subjects.
How do you see this study influencing future research? We hope that the ethical guidelines of some associations can evolve to offer more room for covert or semi covert research, and acknowledge the difficulties of obtaining full consent. We also think that ethical boards in universities may be willing to offer a more flexible perspective on covert research.
Finally our work is a call to researchers to consider covert observational approaches… with care!
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