A clash of methodology and ethics in `undercover' social science

Philosophy of the Social Sciences 33 (3):351-362 (2003)
A focus of criticism on methodological and ethical grounds, the undercover or `covert' approach to fieldwork persists as a useful technique in certain settings. Questions remain about the credibility of the published findings from such work. Covert researchers nearly always protect the anonymity of their subjects and locations. Other researchers cannot validate the covert researcher's claims, yet ethical guidelines often insist that researchers demonstrate the benefits that derive from a covert study. If researchers cannot show that their studies will prove beneficial, ethical standards will weigh against the study, on the presumption that the omission of informed consent should be counterbalanced by the scientific rewards of the research. An attempt to open the results to greater peer investigation might place subjects at risk of unwanted notoriety or even danger. There does not seem to be a way that covert research can meet ethical guidelines unless we adjust our conceptions of research, ethics, or both. Key Words: fieldwork • ethnography • research ethics • informed consent.
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DOI 10.1177/0048393103252782
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