covert observation

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covert observation Participant observation carried out without the explicit awareness and agreement of the social unit being studied. This entails finding some self-explanatory role within the research setting in order to mask the researcher's true purpose. It may be used because research access to the social unit would normally be denied, or to ensure that the researcher's presence does not affect the behaviour of those being observed. Examples include Laud Humphries's covert observations of homosexual encounters (Tearoom Trade, 1970), and Leon Festinger and his colleagues, who observed a religious cult by pretending to become adherents to its beliefs (When Prophecy Fails, 1956). The method raises serious ethical problems. Martin Bulmer's Social Research Ethics (1982) examines the merits and dilemmas of covert participant observation, as illustrated by a variety of well-known American and British studies. See also RESEARCH ETHICS.