Orientation Observation In-depth interviews Document analysis and semiology Conversation and discourse analysis Secondary Data Surveys Experiments Ethics Research outcomes



Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2018

Page updated 9 February, 2018

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2018, Researching the Real World, available at
All rights belong to author.


A Guide to Methodology

10. Ethics

10.1 Introduction
10.2 Harm
10.3 Confidentiality, anonymity and privacy
10.4 Approval
10.5 Informed consent

10.6 Deception
10.7 Fraud
10.8 Publishing ethics
10.9 Conclusion

Activity 10.6.1

10.6 Deception
Ethics are an issue in any research situation but participant observation is frequently highlighted as a particularly problematic area. This is mainly because of the potential for 'spying' which some people regard as, at best, an invasion of privacy and, at worst, a totally immoral act. To mislead people by pretending to be genuinely interested in their prophecy of the end of the world (Festinger, Rieken and Schachter, 1956), to be a voyeur in a criminal underworld (Taylor, 1984), or to use police contacts to obtain home addresses of gay men through the vehicle registration computer (Humphreys, 1970) are regarded by some people as ethically unacceptable activities. There is no easy answer to this issue of 'spying'.

Some groups, such as the National Front or a criminal organisation, may be difficult to study if they are aware they are being observed. However, if the researcher adopts covert methods this stops a relationship based on trust developing and may cause upset to those being studied when they eventually find out (Whyte, 1943). In some cases, covert research may put the researcher in danger (Patrick, 1973). Polsky (1971), who studied deviant activity as a participant observer, is very insistent that even this kind of research should not be covert as it can easily end up with the researcher being compromised and it is almost impossible to maintain a role as a covert participant observer over a long period of time.

David Calvey's (2008) stance on covert research not only has implications for informed consent but clearly raises the issue of deception. Martyn Hammersley and Paul Atkinson (1995) argued that the researcher should avoid being deceptive where possible but they acknowledged that this may not always be possible because the aims and purpose of the research may change during the process of the research.

Matthew Lauder (2003, p. 185) took this argument further and claimed that covert participant observation is a useful and necessary tool in the examination of deviant communities, in particular new religious movements existing on the fringe of society. Drawing on the methodological and ethical challenges experienced during three years of covert participant observation of the Heritage Front (a neo-National Socialist organisation that adheres to a racial-religious worldview) Lauder argued that 'on the basis of methodological necessity and a cost-benefit analysis, the use of deception is both operationally and ethically justifiable'.
The American Psychological Association (2016), in their ethical principles, state that deceiving subjects should only occur when it is justified by the study's prospective scientific, educational, or applied value and when equally effective alternative procedures that do not use deception are not feasible. They continue:

Psychologists do not deceive research participants about significant aspects that would affect their willingness to participate, such as physical risks, discomfort, or unpleasant emotional experiences. Any other deception that is an integral feature of the design and conduct of an experiment must be explained to participants as early as is feasible, preferably at the conclusion of their participation, but no later than at the conclusion of the research.

Researchers may be open about doing the research but at the same time it may be necessary ti hide their true feelings about the people whom they are researching. Scully (1990) in her study of convicted rapists had to face a series of ethical issues. She was not open with her research subjects about her true feelings towards them rather she allowed them to see her in a way that would encourage them to talk to her about their crimes of rape:

The type of information sought in this research required a supportive, non judgmental neutral façade – one that I did not always genuinely feel. Frankly, some of the men were personally repulsive…. Indeed some of the interviews required immense effort to remain neutral. But the fact is that no one tells his or her secrets to a visibly hostile and disapproving person. (Scully, 1990, p. 18)

There are ethical problems involved in covert observation, ranging from the fact that by spying on people you are not being entirely honest with them (you are, in a sense, exploiting them for your own ends) to the problem of suddenly ceasing to involve yourself in the lives of people who may have grown to like, trust and depend on you. William Foote Whyte (1943) had this issue with his Street Corner Society study and, for Howard Parker (1974) an ethical problem was the extent to which researchers should deceive people by pretending to be 'one of them'.

David Hargreaves (1967) pointed out that a certain amount of deception is inevitable in any form of participant observation. The moral dilemma is not necessarily overcome by making known one's presence as a researcher to those who are the subjects of the study. It was when the teachers he was studying appeared to treat Hargreaves as a friend rather than a researcher that the most significant things were said.

If researchers make the decision not to be open about their presence as a researcher then it is important to consider why this decision has been made.

It is possible that being too open about the research may influence the research subjects and cast doubt on the findings of the research, as the subjects may simply give the answers that they think the researcher wants to hear. However, feminist researchers (for example, Maynard and Purvis, 1994) have criticised this view and, instead, argued that much research is exploitative and oppressive. Rather than subjects being influenced by open research, the dominant approach is one in which the researcher is in a powerful situation and is able to control and manipulate subjects. Instead, these feminist critics argued that the researcher should be open and honest with the research subjects and, by being reflexive, can overcome problems of the effect of the researcher on the research setting.

In this sense being reflexive involves critically analysing the research process in an attempt to uncover the assumptions about gender, race, disability, sexuality (and other oppressions) which may affect the design, data collection and analysis of research. Ann Oakley (1981), for example has highlighted the political and ethical issues in the treatment of respondents in survey research in which they are asked identical questions in a set order and where issues raised by the respondents are ignored so as not to disturb the standardised nature of the interview. This criticism is not only confined to survey research but also to conventional participant observation research and unstructured interview studies that prioritise the perspective of the researcher.

When it comes to experimental research on people, it is necessary to weigh the ethical considerations very carefully before setting up experiments where the subjects are being deceived into being unwitting participants.

Activity 10.6.1
In your view, are there any circumstances in which it would be ethical to undertake experiments that involved
1.  Telling subjects that they are involved in trials of a new counselling service when, in fact, it is the subjects' actions that are being monitored?
2.  Pretending not to know something the subjects expect you to be aware of in order to provoke a reaction to your pretended ignorance?
3.  Acting in a threatening or hostile manner towards subjects?
4.  Getting some subjects to simulate aggressive actions towards other subjects?
5.  Taking a child away from the care of a parent in order to observe the reactions?.

As a class activity this would take about 40 minutes in small groups with a 20-minute feedback session.


Next 10.7 Fraud