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Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2017

Page updated 13 January, 2017

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2017, Researching the Real World, available at
All rights belong to author.


A Guide to Methodology

3. Observation

3.1 Introduction
3.2 Aspects

3.2.1 Extent of participation (observer role)
3.2.2 Degree of openness Introduction Open Secret Conclusion

3.2.3 Explanation of purpose
3.2.4 Degree of obtrusiveness
3.2.5 Active or passive
3.2.6 Length and frequency of observation
3.2.7 Focus of observation
3.2.8 Summary of aspects

3.3 Methodological approaches
3.4 Access
3.5 Recording data
3.6 Analysing observational or ethnographic data
3.7 Summary

3.2 Aspects

3.2.2 Degree of openness Introduction
As a researcher, you have to decide whether to do the observation openly or in secret. This is also referred to as overt or covert observation. This means that you have to decide whether or not to tell all (or some) of your research subjects that you are undertaking research about them.

In some settings the decision about openness is effectively made by the kind of research being undertaken. If you are observing the activity of a football crowd, then it is impractical to tell them all you are observing them. On the other hand, if you are undertaking a close-up study of a small group of people with whom you are participating then the question of openness or secrecy has to be addressed. Participant observation may, therefore, be fully open (overt) so that all the research subjects are aware of the research, partially open in which some members of the group are aware of the observer/researcher role and secret (covert) where none of the subjects know about the research.

Non-participant observation may also be open (overt), such as when an observer sits in on a meeting, but often it is covert. In some studies, covert and overt observation may be undertaken in parallel. Hobbs (1988), for example, in his study of petty crime and policing in the East End of London, overtly observed the situation when he visited CID offices and covertly observed informants at clubs, in the pub and at parties.

If you let the subjects know you are observing them then they may object and it may prove difficult or impossible to carry on doing the research. Even if the subjects are happy that you continue observing, they may be self-conscious and restrained in what they do when you are around. On the other hand, if you observe secretly, the subjects will not know they are the subject of observation and so will not be inhibited. However, you may have to go to great lengths to keep your observation secret. Gottfried and Graham (1993, p. 611), in their study of gender differences in a car factory, ‘selected covert participant observation to facilitate entry into the plant and speed up the process of gaining acceptance from car workers and management’ although noting that ‘covert observation, however, remains controversial’.

Top Open
In general, open observation research allows for a less stressful role than secret observation (Holdaway, 1983). Laud Humphreys (1970), a secret observer who adopted a role as look-out for gay men, was part of a group attacked by youths in a public toilet and was also arrested by the police. The open researcher is more likely to be able to ask naïve questions (especially at the beginning of the research) than the participant observer who is secretly researching the group.

Open participant observation is likely to result in a more flexible role. This allows greater freedom of enquiry for the researcher than does secret participant observation. The subject group will not assume that the researcher is aware of group taken-for-granteds and will tolerate, at least for a while, what they see as naïve or simplistic questions. However, even open participant observers are recommended to ‘keep your eyes open and your mouth closed’ (Polsky, 1971) because you will find ‘answers to questions you never thought to ask’ (Whyte, [1943] 1955).

Furthermore, if you are a participant long enough, especially if you are unobtrusive (Section 3.2.4), the other members of the group will either forget you are a researcher or will be so used to you that they will soon overcome any inhibitions they may have. You will cease to be a threat and they will drop any ‘front’ that they may have constructed as a reaction to your initial presence. Anne Campbell (1984, pp. 2–3) adopted an open approach for these reasons in her study of New York female gang members (see CASE STUDY Female Street Gangs).

Undertaking open participant observation still requires establishing trust with research subjects. Cooper et al. (2004) undertook a study of dependent older people living in their own homes.

The initial period of fieldwork for the participant observation took place over a period of several months, and only when it was considered by the researcher that trust and rapport were well established were clients and their families asked to join the study. Nonetheless, after several months of care work with one client, his relative declined the invitation to participate in the study and the researcher withdrew from the particular situation.

Top Secret
A secret (or covert) observer runs the risk of being discovered and the research coming to a premature conclusion. In the extreme case, discovery can result in actual or potential physical harm for the researcher. Patrick (1973, p. 135) was forced to quit his secretive research of a Glasgow gang when he refused to carry a weapon and failed to turn up for a gang battle. Although protected by the gang leader, another member of the gang, who had been arrested and was serving a short sentence, intended vengeance against Patrick for his non-appearance and repeatedly threatened to ‘rip his jaw’. As Patrick put it, ‘my days in the gang were numbered’.

Not all secret observation is that stressful. John Ray (1987) used students to covertly attend environmentalist meetings. As he was only trying to find out the class composition of environmentalists groups and the students were simply asking people what they did for a living, there was relatively little stress.

Secret observation is preferred by some participant observers because, they argue, it reduces the impact of the researcher on the group. The researcher is just another member of the group and the subjects carry on as before. Although keeping up the pretence may be difficult, it is no more difficult than negotiating to do the research in the first place and then trying to play down one’s researcher role. Lesley Milroy, for example, introduced herself initially not as a researcher but as 'a friend of a friend' which gave her 'some of the rights as well as some of the obligations of an insider' (Milroy, 1987, p. 66).

In some cases, proponents of secret participant observation argue that it is the only viable alternative. Sometimes you have to be secretive because there is no way that certain groups will ever allow you to do the research if they know what you are doing, for example, extreme right-wing political organisations (Fielding, 1981; Thompson, 1988), religious cults (Festinger, Rieken and Schachter, 1956; Wallis, 1976; Homan, 1978) and some criminal activities (Scheper-Hughes, 2004; Fountain, 1993).

In other cases, a secret approach may be considered necessary to discover what is really going on, such as studying the police at work (Holdaway, 1983), exploring fiddling by bread salesmen (Ditton, 1977), studying what goes on in commercial hospitality (Lugosi, 2006) on mental health wards (Goffman, 1961; Rosenhahn, 1973; Taylor, 1991) and lying in the workplace (Shulman, 2007).

However, open observation research has taken place in many of these areas. Eileen Barker (1984) was invited to study a religious cult and Roger Grimshaw and Tony Jefferson (1987) undertook an open, non-participant study of policework. Howard Becker (1963) openly studied marijuana users. Martin Bulmer (1982) argued that there are so many participant options that ‘the need for covert observational strategies may be exaggerated’.

Other participant observers argue that secret research should always be avoided, and the researcher should not attempt to ‘be one of them’ (Polsky, 1971). This can be a stressful experience.

Both Polly Toynbee (2003) and B Ehrenreich (2002) were journalists who undertook undercover work to report the situation of exploited low-paid workers. They both worried about maintaining their adopted roles. As Tom Hall (2004, p. 627) wrote in his review, both Ehrenreich and Toynbee:

fret that (even if their co-workers do not see them for who they are) their cover may be blown by a chance encounter with a friend or colleague. This never happens. Donning a tabard proves to be as effective a disguise as one could wish for, because it is such a ready and recognizable signal of difference. Working as a nursery assistant in central London, pushing buggies along Whitehall, Toynbee is sure some politician or policy person will recognize her, but in her colourful uniform she turns out to be ‘an absolutely invisible non-person here’. Nor do any of Ehrenreich’s customers, those she waits on and cleans for, ever recognize her face or name. Indeed her name seldom enters into it: ‘[i]n this parallel universe ... I am “baby,” “honey,” “blondie,” and, most commonly, “girl”.’

So adopting a role out of one's normal context is not so obvious to other people as it is to the researcher. However, there is the continued anxiety and with it the feeling, admitted by Toynbee and Ehrenreich of being uneasy about their research. Hall (2004, p. 627) went further and suggested that their studies were voyeuristic and, despite discussing 'their feelings at some length', lacked reflexivity.

Apart from the stress, potential danger and possible premature conclusion, secret participant observation is far too restrictive. To undertake research secretly you have to adopt a particular role within a group and this can often be a limited one with specific expectations and with little flexibility. Secret observers are, in effect, assigned a role, unlike open researchers who can develop their own, less rigid, role.

The open role allows researchers to be involved in more aspects of the group activity without any expectation that they should undertake any particular tasks. This can be very important when it comes to issues of what the researcher is and is not prepared to do. If the observer is operating a secret role there will be group expectations about what she or he does that may be very difficult to get out of. The open researcher can make it clear from the outset what kinds of things she or he wants to hear about or witness, and it is important to do so. Polsky (1971) reports a social worker involved with criminals who did not make his position clear and who was manoeuvred into a situation where he had to dispose of murder weapons.

Indeed, as Speer and Hutchby (2003a, p, 317) noted:

…there is general agreement nowadays on the undesirability, on ethical and other grounds, of conducting research on humans without their ‘informed consent’. Interestingly, although this move is encouraged by the publication of ethical guidelines or codes of practice by professional bodies such as the British Sociological Association (BSA) and British Psychological Society (BPS), such guidelines are not always consistent and even occasionally resort to recommending covert methods. For example, the BSA guidelines state that ‘covert methods may avoid certain problems’, particularly the ‘difficulties’ that ‘arise when participants change their behaviours because they know they are being studied’ (British Sociological Association, n.d.: 3).

One concern often voiced by those advocating avoidance of secret participant observation is the danger of 'going native'. That is beoming so involved that one ceases to observe the the group or accurately record data and increasingly becomes a full member adopting the perspectives and norms of the group. This shift from researcher to group member clearly compromises the research but it may also involve major ethical and even legal issues. It should be noted that there are few examples of researchers going native to the extent that they become absorbed in the group and forsake the research. There are more examples of reserchers who have undertaken dubious activities in order to maintain their chosen cover story. Howard Parker (1974), for example, received stolen goods as part of his gang role, which was necessary to retain trust and respect of the people he was researching.

Top The case for covert observation
David Calvey (2008) argued against modern conventional wisdom that emphasised infomed consent and in favour of covert observation. He undertook covert observation of night-club bouncers.

Calvey (2008, p. 906) says that covert research is frowned upon and this 'preofessional consensus' is 'strongly tied up with the principle of informed consent and, related to this, the public image of the discipline and the legitimacy of its knowledge'. He refers to Homan's (1980, 1991) thirteen objections to covert research:

including flouting the principle of informed consent; the erosion of personal liberty; betraying trust; pollution of the research environment; producing a negative reputation of social research; discrimination against the defenceless and powerless; damage to the behaviour or interests of subjects; covert methods may become habitual in the everyday life of the person doing the research; the habit of deception may spread to other spheres of human interaction; covert methods are invisibly reactive; covert methods are seldom necessary; covert methods have the effect of confining the scope of research; and that the covert researcher suffers excessive strain in maintaining cover.

While acknowledging these Calvey goes on to say that these 'do not amount to a sustained rejection of covert research'. He complains that the dominant view expects, where informed consent is not possible, retrospective debriefings of subjects following covert research. 'This is an idealized view of the research setting and, again, contributes to covert work being fettered and stifled.' He refers to the much quoted and criticised case of deception by Laud Humphreys (1970) and contrasts it with Mitchell's (1993) view 'that 'secrecy' is an integral and unacknowledged part of robust fieldwork'. Wells (2004) too, argued that covert research should be judged on the basis of 'research necessity and quality of data, rather than the emotive debates about morality and ethics' (Calvey 2008, p. 906). Calvey argued that it is restrictive to enforce a code of ethics through consent forms in participant observation settings as they are unpredictable and evolving. Instead, ethics have to be addressed 'situationally'. That is, as Lugosi (2006) said:

concealment and disclosure are negotiated throughout the fieldwork period. He argues that it is the relationships with specific informants that determine overtness or covertness in the research. For him, concealment is sometimes necessary and often unavoidable. (Calvey, 2008, p. 908)

Similarly, Anderson and Bissell (2004) argued that the boundaries between covert and overt research and blurred and constitute a moral continuum. Clavey also cited Bourgois who stated that fieldwork is supposedly about building rapport and avoiding distorted social interction that results in skewed or superficial data.

...How can we reconcile effective participant/observation with truly informed consent? Is rapport building a covert way of saying ‘encourage people to forget that you are constantly observing them and registering everything they are saying and doing?’ (Bourgois, 2007, pp. 296–7)

Calvey argued that it is difficult to plan research so that ethical dilemmas do not arise and that in practice it is difficult to maintain a strict either/or division between overt and covert 'hence the messy reality is more akin to a continuum'.

Furthermore, some covert research, that couldn't be undertaken openly, benefits the subjects; a benefit that would otherwise not attach to them. Goffman (1961) argued that researching while working as a physical therapy assistant contributed to the well-being of the inmates as well as providing insights about the processes of institutionalisation. Other classic research including many of the Chicago School studies included elements of covert research.

Calvey argued that his covert research on night-club bouncers (doormen) provided a more rounded view of the mundanity of the job balancing the taken-for-granted perception that the job is fundamentally violent. He described his covert research role as follows:

I covered 10 door sites, including pubs, clubs and café bars, which exhibit both their door order and status hierarchy. In this sense, I constructed a ‘door career’ as part of my fieldwork credibility strategy as I was often asked where I had worked and with whom. So when asked if I knew the local ‘heads’ or people who were ‘connected’ to criminal fraternities, or at least had aspirations to be, I lied and emphatically said ‘Yes, of course’ on any occasion that I was asked. This line of work is a type of emotional labour which, although often temporary, develops shifting relationships with door people.

Based on his experience, Calvey (2008, p. 912) argued that ethical codes can only be a sanitized picture of the research experience with limited 'understanding of the emotional, biographical and shifting character of fieldwork where ethical decisions are occasioned practices'. Instead he proposed a view of ethics as 'contingent, dynamic, temporal, occasioned and situated affairs'. Referring to his own work he noted: 'Thus, particularly in my covert case, one is involved in a web of shifting and mixed connections, tactics, identities and motives' because 'the management of situated ethics is not only about adopting a theoretically reflexive attitude but also about a whole series of practical manoeuvres and tactics'. Calvey did find himslef on the edge of moral dilemmas:

During the course of my research I experienced, both in the sense of witnessing and participating in, various ‘ethical dilemmas’ around drug taking, violence towards and from bouncers, withholding information from the police and taking cuts from door money, but these were all occasioned features of the setting, which I ‘geared into’ as a member of the setting, not an academic zookeeper or moral guardian. When a senior doorman of a famous Manchester nightclub, which has since closed down, told me ‘I was in the firm’ I simultaneously felt pleased with the credibility of my deception but also troubled about the future consequences of this status. Some would view my role as problematic in terms of collusion, which is only an issue if one retains a traditional conception of fieldworker objectivity. Obviously, these encounters could have put me in an ambiguous legal position, as I had acquired a type of deviant knowledge (Walters, 2003) but fortunately that never happened. In a way, it was a type of ‘fingers crossed ethnography’ where my luck might have run out. (Calvey 2008, p. 913)

Calvey is clear that he 'I didn’t need sociology' to tell me how to behave and that he was quite capable of self-regulating his ethical conduct. He concludes:

I see covert research as part of a wider process of disruptive thinking in sociology and the social sciences, where one’s normal status and privilege in the setting is removed. Covert research is part of a somewhat submerged tradition that needs to be recovered for future usage in its own right rather than being treated correctively as teaching material for cases of ‘failed or bad ethics’. In many cases, covert research is an informed choice of research style rather than an enforced one. Moreover, research in this mould is a tradition that has significantly shaped, often in controversial ways, debates about the research relationship. My deep concern is that, in the present context of governance, we develop forms of ‘methodological hypochondria’. (Calvey, 2008, p. 914)

Top Conclusion
In short, open participant observation is preferred because neither the subjects nor the researcher can keep an act going for very long without considerable effort and enormous stress.

Complete secret observation is probably best avoided if you intend to use participant observation in your research project. Quite often, researchers adopt a partially open approach. The true purpose of the research may be concealed from all or some group members (see section 3.2.3).

Note that openness can also be conceptualised slightly differently: as the nature of the research object rather than as the mode of operation of the researcher. Colin Bell (1969), for example, wrote:

social systems, institutions, organizations and groups can be characterized by their degree of 'openness', by which is meant ease of access for the research worker. Communities in this country are more open than universities, universities than firms, firms than prisons and 10 on. 'Openness' is a relative concept but may for these purposes be dichotomized as 'open' and 'closed'.



Next 3.2.3 Explanation of purpose