Covert Observation: Definition & Advantages

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  • 0:00 What Is Covert Observation?
  • 1:35 Addressing Research Challenges
  • 2:44 Advantages of Covert…
  • 4:13 Disadvantages of…
  • 5:41 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David White
Covert observation can yield incredible results, but it remains a controversial approach to research. Through this lesson, you will learn what defines covert observation and explore some of the positive and negative aspects.

What Is Covert Observation?

If you've spent some time watching police dramas or thrillers, you've probably seen at least one story in which a detective has to go undercover as part of a criminal organization. In movies and real life, the detective does this to monitor the activities of a group or get information without their knowing that he or she is a police officer. You may be surprised to learn that this is also an approach that researchers sometimes take in order to study a particular group.

This kind of approach to research is called covert observation, which is when the researcher joins the group of participants without them knowing that they're being studied. There are different reasons why a researcher would use this methodology but, as with undercover police officers, it's usually in an attempt to gain unrestricted access that allows them to gather evidence, data, or other information. Covert observation is a kind of qualitative methodology because it's used to gather in-depth information through, among other things, interviews and observations.

For example, the book and film Fast Times at Ridgemont High was written by journalist and director Cameron Crowe, who passed himself off as a high school student in order to write about the lives of teenagers. Had Crowe introduced himself to his subjects as a journalist, it is very likely that they would have given him considerably less information than they ultimately did.

Addressing Research Challenges

There are a number of different factors that make observational research with groups challenging. As previously mentioned, there's certain information participants will not want to share with an outsider, or they may leave out certain details because they don't know the person. For instance, imagine that you are participating in a study about trauma - would you feel comfortable sharing intimate, personal details with the interviewer?

In some cases, participants may agree to be observed, but still unconsciously change the way that they behave or respond to the researcher. This is known as the observer effect, which is when the participants behave differently because they know that they are being observed. For example, say that you agreed to have someone follow you around the grocery store and monitor what you buy. This might change not only the items that you choose to buy (carrots instead of potato chips), but also the way that you move through the store, how you talk to the people around you, or the time it takes you to make decisions. Covert observation aims to overcome the observer effect.

Advantages of Covert Observation

Given that being knowingly observed can change the way that participants behave, you can probably understand why covert observation is often beneficial. Being a participant of the group allows the researcher to benefit from in-group bias, which is when someone is treated better or given privileges because he or she is a part of the group.

In his 2000 book Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, journalist Ted Conover describes a year in which he went undercover as a guard at New York's Sing Sing prison. Conover's goal was to understand what it was like to be a prison guard and work in an aggressive environment on a regular basis. As a guard, the inmates and other guards shared many details with him that they likely would not have shared had they known that he was a journalist and planned on including their stories in a book or article.

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