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Participant Observation; Ethics; Covert Research; Overt Research; Informed Consent; Researcher Role; Field Relations; Reflexivity

'You Don't Know How Lucky You Are to Be Here!': Reflections on Covert Practices in an Overt Participant Observation Study

John S. McKenzie
Sociological Research Online 14 (2) 8

Keywords: Participant Observation; Ethics; Covert Research; Overt Research; Informed Consent; Researcher Role; Field Relations; Reflexivity
Abstract: There has been a tendency in sociology to see covert and overt roles of social researchers in participant observation studies as opposites. This is both in terms of the researcher role and the surrounding ethics, with the overt researcher role being seen as fundamentally more ethical than the covert participant observer. However, Calvey (2008) alleged that covert practices often remain unreported in overt accounts. The purpose of this paper is therefore to address this issue through reflections on my own research experience. Drawing on my research with the contemporary spiritual milieu in Scotland, I will argue that the covert and overt roles are far from opposites and should be seen as part of a continuum. The moral high ground attributed to overt research is often questionable and most overt studies will employ covert practices. It will therefore be argued that decisions regarding the role of the participant observer should be grounded in the intellectual contemplation of specific research situations, including ethical considerations, rather than condemning sound social enquiry on the misguided basis that overt research is always superior to covert studies because of its ethical standards. In conclusion it will be argued that all researchers have a responsibility to reflect honestly upon their research experience as part of wider reflexive turn in social research.