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: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2088196
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.