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 directly impact study design. One reason is that covert observation has not been an uncommon design feature in ethnographic research, leaving these researchers 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 Read Full Text