The Dangers of Covert Ethnography

Posted: November 14, 2011 in Uncategorized

*warning video has scenes of violence*

Visions of Spy thrillers come to mind, double agents fem fatales and deceit spring to mind. But the reality may be more like spending 52 days trying to convince every one your not mental. If you haven’t guessed I’m referring to the famous Rosenhan study of 1973. where participants were admitted to mental hospitals under the impression they had schizophrenia even though as soon as they were in, they acted normal. Unfortunately, the Doctors and staff took their time to realize what was really going on. Diaries where noted as writing obsessions, pacing down corridors (derived from boredom) was seen to be strange. It seems once you go undercover like this, the risks can be high.

Ethnography is a technique used to collect qualitative data by immersing one self into the culture and social norms of the target population. Such as going and joining a rural tribe in a third world country so you can really understand where they are coming from. Problem is such a tribe might have a tenancy to eat foreigners, but you probably wouldn’t to be able to pull of the ethnography until it was to late.

Nokia  used this technique in Asia and Africa which lead to the development of an image only mobile with a long battery life. So it can be employed by businesses to.

There are other problems with ethnography:

  1. As much as the research immerses them-self, they still have preconceived ideas and behaviors.
  2. How can you gain informed consent from some one who doesn’t know your observing them.
  3. People may disclose sensitive information under false pretenses.
  4. the whole process may well be based on deception.
  5. The Research may be having an effect on the observed without realizing it.

It’s important to remember that not all ethnography is bad, using it overtly can be harmless. The problem is the reason you have to be covert in the first place has to out weigh the possible risks.

  1. MEG :) says:

    i agree that there are huge ethical problems when immersing yourself into an ovservation. Miles and Huberman (1994) investigated many of the problems, such as informend consent as you mentioned, even if they give consent, how can they give consent if they are yet to know how close and personal teh observation is going to get! the problems based around trust, if you for example join a tribe, then are they going to feel like you have alterior motives…which you kind of do! and what if, you become great friends with the participants and then for these reasons dont report your finding honestly! Are we intruding too much, or not enough, and what interventions should be allowed if as a researcher we see harmfull behaviour, you could say we shouldnt as this would be changing the situation, but just our presence is already going to change the dynamic of the group. i think i agree with you that the possible risks just outweigh what you gain.

    • psucc3 says:

      Exactly, you could say well if the researcher remains professional than none of these things will become and issue. But to justify using covert ethnography in the first place means there must be a reason for that level of secrecy. usually because you are investigation a controversial or difficult issue that you wouldn’t expect to have a conversation with a stranger about.

  2. kiwifruit8 says:

    Oh hai, i likey the blog, but i think you couldve argued firstly the benefits of covert ethnography. For example the recent disgusting news story of how vulnerable adults are being treated wouldnt have been discovered if it wasnt for people going undercover.

    Nowadays covert ethnography must surely require some consent, for example with hospitals, the pros and cons of breaking ethics wouldve been discussed and consent wouldve been gained with someone very high in the hierachy (as doctors are normally those deceived and the ones under observation).
    But all your points are true, for example one of the main human rights of privacy is broken and this is a massive problem with covert ethnography.

    • psucc3 says:

      good real life reference kiwi! at the end of your comment you said about human rights being broken, I think its ok with ethnography because its is being done with entirely good intentions and i dont think id be that botherd if it turns out one of my house mates is an undercover research trying to get the inside scoop on uni life haha

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  4. suuzblog says:

    Am I the only one who hadn’t heard of ethnography before O.o I mean I knew it existed, but didn’t know that’s what it was called! Interesting blog with good real-life examples, makes me kinda paranoid though, what if someone was observing me once and I didn’t know it… A very real danger of not getting informed consent, like you mentioned. But then, if you told people what you were doing, they wouldn’t behave naturally and the whole purpose of you going ‘undercover’ would be ruined! Tricky situation… And especially with ethics nowadays, how would you get past that one? Is ethnography too intrusive? Especially when those involved don’t know what’s going on? Does the knowledge of the fact that someone *could* be observing you make you change your behaviour and who you are…? my brain hurts :/

  5. nirapsy says:

    It’s an interesting topic to write about, and as you say, going undercover would probably make everybody feel a bit like they were a secret agent to some extend, infriltrating “the others” to figure out how they are different. This approach is, as you say, used a lot in corporational espionage, and jounalism as well, when journalists infiltrate for example a gang, or hospital, to create a news story. However the ethical side of informed consent, it will be impossible to get, if you want to keep your identity unknown to the group of your interest, so for it to be approved, it would have to give very significant results, or serve some kind of greater purpose, as this would be highly unethical as an experimenter, or you can follow up on Fay’s idea, and make a tv show about going undercover, and afterwards write a report ahout the tv show. However one more thing i would like to add as a potential problem, will be if the researcher himself gets too many attachments inside the group, like it happened with Zimbardo in his Stanford prison experiment, as this would bias you inro maybe having a more positive image of the group. So to do a good job at ethnography you will have to be extremely professional, and be able to emotially detach yourself in any way from the report, which is extremely hard, if not impossible, for us humans to do.

  6. ellislee15 says:

    I loved this topic :D Ethnography is it used to literally study cultural behaviour, so I think that breaking ethics as a disadvantage is one that should be over looked as long as the study don’t actually bring around psychical or mental harm to participants. The main ethical concern is deception but surely if the people being observed know that they are being observed than they will change their behaviour and we wont get a clear representation on cultural behaviour and therefore would defeat the whole object of the research. You do make a very valid point in saying that researchers may influence results with preconceived perceptions which will cause biases and I think things like this need to be regulated otherwise the results wont be valid.

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