To Deceive…or Not?

Ethical considerations play an important role in the research we do.  Of all researchers, however, the ethnographer may be the most likely to face difficult ethical considerations and decisions that deceivedirectly impact study design.  One reason is that covert observation is a fairly common design feature in ethnographic research and these researchers live with the secrecy of deception.

There are many well-documented covert ethnographic studies, some of which became highly controversial for their use of deceptive tactics.  Carolyn Ellis (1986), for example, conducted a nine-year observation of a Guinea (traditional watermen) community in the tidewater region of Virginia whose townspeople befriended her unaware that the sole purpose of her visits was to further her research endeavor.  She quickly became a “traitor” when her prize-winning book on the research went public.

Deviant and subculture groups have also been the target of covert ethnographies.  Humphreys’ (1970) classic study on male homosexual bathroom trysts involved  the researcher serving as a watchdog for quick sexual liaisons in public bathrooms between male strangers.  The researcher obtained the names and addresses of these men by using public records to look up their automobile license plate numbers.  One year later, he visited these men, pretended to be conducting survey research on mental health and, in so doing, conducted 50 interviews that appeared to have nothing to do with the men’s earlier bathroom-sex activities.   Despite generating interesting findings, this study was extremely controversial in terms of its ethics and, among other things, contributed to the elimination of the sociology department at Washington University (where Humphreys had received his doctorate degree).

Other covert ethnographies involving deviant groups include the work of: Adler (1990) who justified her and her husband’s covert passive participation in a study investigating drug trafficking  by the “illegal nature of the activity and the degree of suspiciousness” they witnessed among the participants (i.e., the drug dealers), as well as the “necessity for maintaining relationships with our key informants”; Tewksbury (2002) who used covert observation to investigate the “social and sexual dynamics” of two gay bathhouses as a complete participant (i.e., as a real member of the bathhouses), justifying the covert strategy based on earlier work in this area; Andriotis (2010) who studied a gay nude beach in the context of an “erotic oasis” as an onsite non-participant observer; and Griffiths (2011) who justified his covert onsite non-participant observation of gambling behavior based on the fact that the research sites were public venues.

Like the practice of ethnography itself, researchers and those that consume ethnographic research findings do not necessarily agree on whether or not deception is acceptable and about the need (some would say “obligation”) to debrief the observed participants who have been deceived by covert researchers; however, most do believe that there should not be an outright ban on covert observation.   Even the “Use of Deception in Research” clause in the Code of Ethics from the American Sociological Association states that there are a number of conditions under which “deceptive techniques” are permissible (American Sociological Association, 1999). And similarly, the American Psychological Association acknowledges in their Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct that there are valuable research studies that could not be conducted without the use of deception (American Psychological Association, 2010).

Some have justified covert observation when studying “powerful and elite” groups (e.g., politicians, corporate executives) who would otherwise be difficult to access due to gatekeepers or who may only agree to participate if allowed to review and edit the researcher’s field notes.  Whatever the reason, researchers generally believe that some form of covert observation may be necessary to gain unbiased data and, indeed, much of the ethnographic research conducted on the Internet is covert in nature.

The question of deception is all around us.  But it is the ethnographer who most often lives and breathes in the shadows of covert research, regardless if the observation is off- or onsite, face-to-face or remote, or the observer participates in the study activity or not.


Adler, P. (1990). Ethnographic research on hidden populations: Penetrating the drug world. In E. Y. Lambert (Ed.), The collection and interpretation of data from hidden populations (pp. 96–112). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute on Drug Abuse.

American Psychological Association. (2010). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct (Vol. 57).

American Sociological Association. (1999). Code of ethics and policies and procedures of the ASA Committee on Professional Ethics (Vol. 119). doi:10.1111/j.1559-3584.2007.ethics.x

Andriotis, K. (2010). Heterotopic erotic oases. Annals of Tourism Research, 37(4), 1076–1096. doi:10.1016/j.annals.2010.04.003

Ellis, C. S. (1986). Fisher folk: Two communities on Chesapeake Bay. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky.

Griffiths, M. D. (2011). A typology of UK slot machine gamblers: A longitudinal observational and interview study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 9(6), 606–626. doi:10.1007/s11469-010-9291-4

Humphreys, L. (1970). Tearoom trade: Impersonal sex in public places. Chicago, IL: Aldine.

Tewksbury, R. (2002). Bathhouse intercourse : Structural and behavioral aspects of an erotic oasis. Deviant Behavior: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 23(1), 75–112.


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