A Clash of Methodology and Ethics in "Undercover" Social Science

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    Abstract

    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.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)351-362
    Number of pages12
    JournalPhilosophy of the Social Sciences
    Volume33
    Issue number3
    DOIs
    StatePublished - 1 Sep 2003

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    Keywords

    • Ethnography
    • Fieldwork
    • Informed consent
    • Research ethics

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