The advantages of Covert Participant Observation

Covert participant observation (CPO) is when a researcher infiltrates a group in order  to be a part of the sample or group studied.  CPO is a method with very high validity, as you get to experience group behaviour with no factors affecting the parameters, and the behaviour given is sincere I.e. there is no practice or Hawthorne effect.

The ethical issue occurs as the “participants” are unaware of “the experiment”. James Patrick, 1973, published a research report called A Glasgow gang observed. He infiltrated a gang in Glasgow to study their social cognitive behaviour as part of a gang, but didn’t note his observations until he’d left the gang, for his own safety. Another person to employ this technique is Jay Dobyns. He penetrated     Hells Angels to attain inside information to provide to the police. However, in difference to Patrick’s experiment, this experience changed Dobyns own personality. And when he couldn’t even recognise his own voice in the records given to the police – He left the gang. His personality had begun to change, and he started to feel like a part of the gang, making it very hard to actually leave “the boys” behind.

Using CPO there is no consent given; no debriefing and no animosity can be guaranteed. When trying to convey personal information, results data may be altered or skewed, leaving the researcher with a scale measuring personal information vs. valid data.

Advantages of CPO are that you have high validity, no risk of the Hawthorne effect and its more than just observing data and numbers on a screen (take that, SPSS).

Disadvantages of CPO are the ethical issues. If the researcher witnesses or commits a crime, what do they do? (Jay Dobyn). The researcher may be exposed to danger. The participants may feel betrayed and used if/when they find out that everything was for the experiment.

( James Patrick and Jay Dobyns are Pseudonyms to protect the authors)


Arthur J. Vidich and Gilbert S. 1955, A Comparison of Participant Observation and Survey Data. P. 28. URL:

Patrick, J. 1973. Glasgow gang observed. United Kingdom, Methuen and Co.

Dobyns, J.2009 No Angel: My Undercover Journey to the Heart of the Hells Angels.


7 comments on “The advantages of Covert Participant Observation

  1. Naomi says:

    As for the issue you have raised regarding covert participant observations, sometimes it is necessary to deceive the participants, belongs the participants are debreifed and are fully explained to regarding why they were not told who the observer was, it is deemed ethical.

    The benefits of deceiving the participants far outweigh the costs, the participants are less likely to display demand characteristics or social desirability, giving a true representation of their behaviour.

    • I totally agree. However both sides must still be presented and considered. Psychological research wouldn’t be reliable if participants knew what is being tested and therefore deception is necessary. If test subject knew what is being tested we get a Hawthorne effect and results are skewed and unreliable. .

      You also have a question of WHAT you can expose participants for. For example, would it be ethical to fake a plane crash or bank robbery for the sake of psychological research? ( I think this has been done actually, but i have no proof for the sake of psychological research? – Hardly. My argument seems weak even from my point of view, but i hope that you understand where I’m trying to get with the example. Another example is Saw 2, where the protagonist infiltrates the captives and appears to be a victim herself…Even though Saw is fiction and can’t really resemble a Real Life situation.

  2. tomosaustin says:

    Jun Li conducted a covert participation observation infiltrating gambling females. She noticed that was was connecting to the females on both a cognitive, but also emotional level. I feel that if a researcher allows their emotions involved then it can cause a bias, thus rendering the experiment useless. Because of the vulnerability of the subject, Jun Li on occasions found herself embarking on ethical dilemas. At the begining of the study she was a covert participant, howewer found the people that she was trying to research were more concerned about her own downfalls of addiction. Due to this she revealed her identity in order to ease their worries. In doing so she also silenced their voices.
    I think this study shows that covert participant observations are not the best method of gaining research.

    • You are pointing out the same issue that Dobwyn experienced? The he started to become such a strong part of the group that it was hard for him to continue gather information, and parting with them was even harder. From what i can read from your comment, it seems like Jun Li found herself in the situation of developing an addiction to the gambling society herself. However, disregarding that risk of becoming a part of the group, I still believe that covert participant observation is the best way to obtain valid information

      • tomosaustin says:

        They are similar in the sense that they both had emotional attachment to the groups that they were infiltrating, however Dobwyn did not come out to the group that he was a researcher did he? Jun Li was not developing an addiction, instead the issue was that the women she was researching did not want her to go down the same paths that they’d been down. Because Jun Li had this emotional attachment she did not want the group to worry about her, so she revealed herself, which removed any worry. But in doing so alienated the group she was researching.

  3. I love covert observations because I believe that you can gain so much information that you may not get if you were overt. however there are so many problems with covert observations, especially ethics,
    the observer may “go native” for example “Howard Parker (“A View From The Boys”) frequently found himself in the position of engaging in criminal activity while in the gang (receiving stolen goods, for example). He argued that such involvement was necessary (although not totally ethical), if he was to maintain the trust, respect and friendship of the people he was researching.”
    there is also the ethical issues of deceit, lack of debriefing in some cases and harm (to the observer)
    there is also the issue of validity and observer bias. as this is a qualitative method the observers views are subjective, if the observer disagrees with the people he/she is studying then he/ she could view them negatively. and vice versa if he/she builds a good rappor with them.

  4. The ends justify the means when carrying out covert observational research. Participants are deceived in this type of research, however it is necessary to do this. If participants were not deceived (e.g. in overt observational research) then they would be more likely to act in a different way because of the researchers presence. In most cases, covert observational research only causes participants to feel betrayed to a certain extent. Overt observational research has little (if any) benefit over normal experimental conditions, as the benefit of observational research is usually being able to observe participants in a natural setting where they are displaying natural behaviour.

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