What is covert research?

This week’s guest screencast and blogpost are authored by Dr. Jaleesa Reed. Dr. Reed is an Assistant Research Professor in the Department of Human Centered Design at Cornell University. Her primary research interest is in millennial Black women’s beauty culture and beauty retail spaces. Her interdisciplinary research focuses on connecting human geography, feminist studies, and merchandising in the fashion, apparel, and textile industries.

To view the screencast, click here: Covert Research

I chose to do this screencast on covert research under the assumption that it was about conducting research without others knowing. While reading the literature, planning, and recording, I found that covert research was more complicated than I anticipated. There were clear divisions among scholars that were for or against using covert methods. Ultimately, both arguments came down to ethics. Is it ethical to observe or study someone without their knowledge? This essay will briefly explain opposing views of covert research, describe the role of situated ethics in covert methods, and then interpret what I’ve learned in my past observation research.

Arguments for or against covert research revolve around the roles and perceived knowledge of the research participants. Authors who deemed covert methods unethical suggested ways to include participants in the research process, such as using participatory methods. In this instance, researchers can engage with potential informants through the research process by including them in discussing the study design, choosing sites of interest, and eventually, writing the study results with them. These tactics reduce the researcher’s ability to impose their beliefs onto the study population. It also provides the informants with insight into the research process and can produce relevant and valuable results.

Researchers who favored covert methods were skeptical about solutions such as participatory action research and obtaining informed consent. In their arguments, expecting informants to participate in the research process assumes they are interested and available after the data collection phase. Conducting research can be a lengthy and complicated process for experienced researchers, and participants may be unavailable or unwilling since they also have responsibilities. Also, the informed consent process is not as transparent as it may seem. Relying on informed consent assumes that informants and researchers have a shared understanding of the nuances of fieldwork. It can be challenging to explain the research process fully while obtaining consent. In addition, explaining the potential risks does not ensure that informants fully understand what will occur. 

Considering the unpredictability of fieldwork, researchers engaged in covert research methods may apply situated ethics to confront their ethical challenges throughout the research process. At three different points – when entering the field, interacting with participants, and leaving the field – researchers must consider how much information they disclose about their identity, how they will handle invitations to engage in illegal activities, and how to protect their informants (Roulet et al., 2017). Some researchers may find guidance for these situations from their professional organizations, such as the American Sociological Association and the Association of Social Anthropologists. Each organization applies a specific form of rationalizing when covert methods are allowable. For example, the American Psychological Association uses consequentialism as a form of reasoning; if the social benefits outweigh the costs, deception or disclosure is considered acceptable. Other organizations expect researchers to weigh the study’s scientific and social value to determine if covert methods are worth the risk. For best practices, researchers can review examples from their discipline’s approach to ethics and stay current by reading articles from methodological journals. 

I considered my own experiences with observation research and whether I used covert research methods. My research sites have typically been apparel or beauty retail stores, such as H&M or Ulta. I focused on something specific during site visits, such as how many customers interacted with a particular brand display. While observing, I usually positioned myself out of their line of sight but still with enough visibility to see whether they touched a product or walked by. In those instances, I did not interact with the customers. Occasionally, I would talk to employees if they asked whether or not I needed help. When reporting my results, I would cite and refer to them as personal communication or informal interviews if I used any of these conversations. Looking back, I was applying situated ethics in these situations even though I was not aware of it. Most of these visits were my first time in a store, so I was not always sure if I planned to come back again. Whether or not I planned to return also impacted how much I interacted with others in the stores.

While reading about covert research, I found that other researchers have taken similar steps during the process of building a relationship with a prospective research site. The literature did not discuss these moments as covert but rather as necessary steps during fieldwork. Though discussions of when or why to use covert methods exist, there is little attention to when covert methods start and end in fieldwork.  

Covert research was more concerned with ethical questions than I expected. Still, the arguments in the literature were relevant to general research concerns as a whole and not just apparent instances of deception. There is a place for covert methods in research, and I think that researchers engage in some form of covert research if their study requires fieldwork. Researchers continue to use covert methods in ethnography and observations. Some of the most recent examples apply covert methods to human rights and consider the role and influence of the researcher’s emotions. 

To some degree, covert research is happening in other types of methods, even in a survey, because participants are usually not fully aware of the research purpose of the study (because this might skew their answers). Usually, the Principal Investigator or Research Assistant will reveal the purpose of the research after surveys are submitted or collected. Still, the difference is the assumption that no harm is caused in these situations.

Overall, most of the discussion about ethics was concerning when and how much to disclose around researchers’ identity. Based on my experience, I also think these initial interactions could count as covert research. Most of the arguments in defense of covert methods stated that informed consent was not foolproof, but there were no suggestions for strengthening the consent process. If the consent process is truly an issue, then this is also an area that could be strengthened when collecting data.

References

Roulet, T. J., Gill, M. J., Stenger, S., & Gill, D. J. (2017). Reconsidering the value of covert research: The role of ambiguous consent in participant observation. Organizational Research Methods, 20(3), 487-517.

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