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Covert Ethnography in Criminal Justice and Criminology: The Controversial Tradition of Doing Undercover Fieldwork

Summary and Keywords

The role and value of covert ethnography in the fields of criminal justice and criminology, a controversial and somewhat marginalized tradition due to its association with deception. It is a transgressive approach with ethical baggage that runs counter to the received wisdom on informed consent. Despite this, it is a creative and innovative approach which can yield rich types of insider data and lived experience leading to nuanced analyses and understanding of crime and deviance in society. There is a classic fear and fascination with covert research. It is a methodological pariah, which has been routinely demonized, particularly in the current climate of ethical regimentation. It is typically associated with harm and risk to both the researched and the researched. The covert researcher has been seen as a belligerent figure in the criminological landscape, which marginalizes its worth.

My exploration and unpacking of this controversial tradition shall be undertaken in several ways: Firstly, by outlining the controversy surrounding deception, which covert ethnography is squarely associated with. This association is partly related to how the understanding of covert observation is deeply embedded in popular culture. Secondly, by exploring the rich diversity of covert ethnography in criminology and criminal justice, both classic and contemporary. Part of the logic here is to rehabilitate and celebrate the sociological aspects of criminology and criminal justice, partly by examining some heartland topics in the field as well as studying deviance across different settings and subcultures. Thirdly, by drawing on some of my own field experiences from a covert study of bouncers in the night-time economy of Manchester, which I compare to others in the field. Fourthly, by offering some brief reflections on the future directions of covert ethnography via a discussion of the revival in covert research. Lastly, by providing some concluding sentiments on covert ethnography.

Keywords: bouncers, covert, danger, deception, emotion, ethics, ethnography, risk, undercover, violence

Deception and the Covert Tradition

Covert research is firmly and clearly equated with deliberate deception or an active process of misrepresentation. This is a different category to unintentional concealment, although in reality there can be slippage between the two. Covert research is often assumed to be exclusively deception, when on further reading, many covert studies employ mixed strategies using gate-keeping and key informants. Covert research is morally, ethically, and politically frowned upon, demonized and stigmatized as a “last resort methodology” (Calvey, 2008, 2013, 2017). Covert research brings with it a research minefield of ethical dilemmas, harm, intrusion, well-being, credibility, guilt syndromes, and deviant knowledge.

The use of covert research, then, runs counter to the orthodoxy of seeking informed consent, which is standard practice in conducting research and hence does not sit comfortably with many researchers and their professional codes and associations. There is a growing critical literature on informed consent (Corrigan, 2003; Dingwall, 2008; Haggerty, 2004; Hammersley, 2010; Katz, 2006; Lawton, 2001; Murphy & Dingwall, 2007), but it still remains the conventional wisdom as to how to ethically conduct field research. If we examine the ethical codes of various professional associations and bodies in the social science community, they take a similar received view on covert research (see website information).

This dissident literature on informed consent heavily flags the contingent and selective nature of informed consent in that informed consent often does not blanket everyone. Thus, unwittingly, some overt fieldwork projects contain covert elements, and a clear polarized divide between overt and covert is problematic to maintain. Namely, a type of slippage occurs that some have glossed over. A good example of this is Fassin’s Enforcing Order (2013), which is an overt study of the Paris police force that contains some elements of covert observation.

The American Sociological Association (ASA) take a very restrictive and critical stance on covert research. Their statement on the “Use of Deception in Research” (Section 12.05) in the Code of Ethics (1999, reprinted 2008) reads:

Sociologists do not use deceptive techniques (1) unless they have determined that their use will not be harmful to research participants; it is justified by the study’s prospective scientific, educational, or applied value; and that equally effective alternative procedures that do not use deception are not feasible; and (2) unless they have obtained the approval of institutional review boards or, in the absence of such boards, with another authoritative body with expertise on the ethics of research.

This position ultimately casts covert research as a type of “last resort methodology” (Calvey, 2008), which can stifle its use by students and professional researchers and academics. Put more provocatively, covert research is the “methodological pariah” to be kept locked in the closet and, if released, then closely monitored. This view of covert research as a maverick and belligerent “anything goes” approach is compounded in the current era where we have seen a rise in ethical regimentation and ethical moralism. My view of covert research is not a zealous or heroic one, but it is one that views covert research as part of a robust and critical criminological imagination and ethnographic toolkit.

The clear irony here is that criminology and criminal justice suffers from amnesia in some quarters in that many invigorating and influential studies in criminology and criminal justice that have shaped their disciplines in the past have used some aspects of covert methodology. Also, importantly, could the disciplines be analytically missing a trick in terms of innovative and creative future developments?

Covert research has an index and footnotes status, often submerged in voluminous ethics handbooks and encyclopedia-type guides on social research, which makes it somewhat difficult to document. Hence, this somewhat limited understanding of covert research gives readers a rather crude view of the rich corpus of covert work across criminology and criminal justice.

As expected, in their practitioner work, the police routinely use undercover tactics for intelligence gathering and surveillance on a range of sensitive topics like pedophilia, drug abuse, football hooliganism, people trafficking, and counterfeit goods, to name just a few, what Loftus and Goold (2012) in their fieldwork on covert police in the U.K. refer to as the “invisibilities of policing.” Such covert policing requires specialist training and must be sensitive to important issues of entrapment. Much more active covert investigation techniques are now widely used and accepted by the police in protecting children from online grooming and sexual abuse by cyber-stings (Gillespie, 2008; Martellozzo, 2012; Simpson, 2006).

In his pioneering work on exploring undercover police work in the United States, Gary T. Marx cogently argues that “secret police behaviour and surveillance go to the heart of the kind of society we are or might become. By studying the changes in covert tactics, a window on something much broader can be gained” (Marx, 1982, p. xxv).

The big screen film adaptations of real undercover police agent’s biographical memoirs such as Serpico (1973), Prince of the City (1981), Donnie Brasco (1997), ID (1995), Gommorah (2008), The Infiltrator (2016), and Imperium (2016), to name some keys ones, fuels a glamorized, romanticized, and heroic picture of undercover work.

Gomorrah: Italy’s Other Mafia (2007), about the Neapolitan Mafia by celebrated journalist Roberto Saviano, is a fascinating example of undercover journalism that has ironically become a successful global product. Saviano, despite his celebrity status, is still under police protection and has received several serious death threats. His novel was made into an award-winning film in 2008, which was awarded the Grand Prix of the Jury at the Cannes Film Festival and then became a popular television series.

Saviano began his journalistic work on the book in 2001, consulting police records and court transcripts, as well as observational data from taking various jobs that allowed first-hand covert contact with the mob. He worked undercover in Camorra-controlled factories, construction sites, and even as a waiter and photographer at a Camorra mob wedding. Saviano characterizes Gomorra elegantly as “where savagery is interwoven with commerce” (2007, p. 300).

Turning to a U.K. context, Mark Daly, a Scottish investigative journalist, worked undercover as a probationary recruit for Greater Manchester Police (GMP) in 2003 and exposed racism in the force. His documentary The Secret Policeman was screened in 2003 on U.K. television and caused controversy and outcry, causing the Campaign for Racial Equality to launch a formal inquiry. Ten of the police officers involved resigned from three forces with 12 more being disciplined following a Police Complaints Authority (PCA) investigation.

Donal MacIntyre, an Irish investigative journalist, has become somewhat of a household name for undercover reporting and exposé journalism in the U.K., mainly around criminality. He became famous for his BBC series, MacIntyre Investigates in 1999, where he covertly investigated a range of different settings and topical issues including Chelsea football hooligans, a fashion model agency, a care home for adults with learning difficulties, and confidence tricksters. Some of his cases have resulted in prosecutions. Since this series he has done various overt investigations of high-profile criminal gangsters, including the Noonan family in Manchester, resulting in his award-winning film A Very British Gangster, released in 2007.

Investigative journalism as a field is clearly fragmented and contested, like other fields. For me, some forms of intimate journalism (Harrington, 1997, 2003) and ethnographic journalism (Cramer & McDevitt, 2004; Hermann, 2016) can offer covert research some robust lessons learned about ethical scenarios, deception, and moral transgression. It is very important to remember here that much investigative journalism, unlike most social science, is typically subject to more strenuous review by legal teams, who are empowered to prevent publication, as well the press having a “public interest” defense available to them.

More could be said on investigative journalism, but the key issue here is that a popular cultural understanding of covert work is partly drawn from these evocative journalistic images and sources, which effects the way covert research is perceived, treated, and consumed. Some of the covert work from investigative journalism is very robust and fascinating, and has a much faster turn-around than academic work, but it is playing a different game, and indeed within a different genre, to the academic one.

Deception has a familiar place in popular culture and the public imagination. Many of the assumptions about and images of covert research are not drawn from academia but are generally evocative case studies drawn from populist investigative journalism, particularly celebrity stings and sensationalist topics, and filmic images of undercover police work. These different sources are playing different analytic different games with different driving imperatives, traditions, rules logics, and sensibilities. Despite such differences and distinctions there can be a blurring of definition for covert research in that covert research becomes a lumpen “catch-all” term.

The Rich Covert Corpus in Criminology and Criminal Justice

As stated previously, if we widen the focus of criminology and criminal justice, then the classical studies in the sociology of deviance and subcultural analysis open up a rich history of covert research. Added to this are also what you could broadly characterize as the heartland areas of criminology and criminal justice, such as the juvenile delinquency, the police, prisons, and legal work that covert work has been undertaken on. The following topics, classified by alphabetical headings, are clearly not a definitive list, but hopefully they adequately display the depth and diversity of the covert corpus in criminology and criminal justice.

Football Hooliganism

Geoff Pearson has researched the sensitive issue of football hooliganism covertly for a number of years. His provocative journal paper “The Researcher as Hooligan: Where ‘Participant Observation’ Means Breaking the Law” (Pearson, 2009), boldly explored the legal tightrope some covert researchers can walk in order to understand what seems to be the extreme logic, rules, and rituals of a deviant subculture. Pearson was actively and willfully involved in proxy hooligan behavior such as pitch invasions, hate chants from the terraces, and excessive alcohol consumption in designated pubs. In order to credibly pass in such settings he immersed himself in the context and much as he legally and ethically could. Pearson faced resistance to his covert approach to this topic within the ethical review process but justified his approach as being appropriate to study this type of clandestine and illicit subculture.

Garland and Treadwell (2010) have studied the rise of the English Defence League (EDL) and its close links to football hooliganism and forms of Islamophobia. For them, the analysis of the EDL is tied up with violent masculinity, political marginalization, and reactionary politics. As well as the analysis of media coverage and various Internet sources, Treadwell used covert ethnography in public settings by “gaining access to EDL networks and hence attending a number of demonstrations ostensibly as someone who sympathizes with its ideas” (Garland & Treadwell, 2010, p. 20). Types of conversational interview data are also used with key informants, who are former members of violent football hooligan firms and now active EDL members, which Treadwell had access to, due to his previous longer-term study of football hooliganism.

Juvenile Delinquency

James Patrick, later revealed to be a fictitious name, in A Glasgow Gang Observed (1973) provides a rich covert participant observation account of a juvenile gang in Glasgow over a four-month period from October 1966 to January 1967, which quickly became a classic study of juvenile delinquency. The book has numerous incidents of Patrick’s secret liaisons with Tim, his key informant who he had known previously as a student at a detention center for young offenders.

Patrick’s passing as a gang member, which blurred age differences, was deliberately and artfully done. Patrick’s key informant, Tim, actively colluded in the ongoing deception. On this Patrick states: “This was seen by both of us as a necessary precaution for our own protection” (Patrick, 1973, p. 16).

Patrick resolved to be a “passive participant,” but this still presented him with a complex set of ethical dilemmas in terms of the violence that he witnessed during his fieldwork. Patrick felt increasingly under pressure to participate in gang activities and finally left the field and area. Patrick concludes: “This book has been an attempt to present the daily lives of a group of adolescent delinquents with appreciation and empathy” (1973, p. 229).

Patrick’s account was to receive critical acclaim. It is a commonly referenced milestone in studies of juvenile delinquency and youth studies (Deuchar & Holligan, 2010; Hallsworth & Young, 2008; McAra, 2008). In 2013, forty years after its original publication, the third revised edition of Patrick’s book was published, with a new short preface. Surprisingly, in today’s social media saturation, both his whereabouts and his real name are still unknown, except to the publishers. This censorship is similar to Victor Rios’s (2011) pioneering work on urban marginality with young males from the black and Latino community who were involved in criminality.

Legal Work

Jennifer Pierce worked as a legal assistant in the litigation department at two corporate law firms in San Francisco, United States. She worked at one for six months followed by nine months in the second one. She also spent a long period of time as a paralegal assistant at various legal firms previously. Pierce is interested in the emotional labor of paralegal work and gender segregation and gender discrimination at law firms, which there is limited work on. Her methodological strategy also involved interviews of over sixty legal workers. After being refused permission to overtly observe legal staff at work on confidentiality and sensitivity grounds, she was effectively forced to adopt a covert method in her book Gender Trials: Emotional Lives in Contemporary Law Firms (Pierce, 1995). She was refused by the law practice concerned on the grounds that informed consent would potentially have to be sought from clients, which could have an adverse commercial impact. This is an understandable and concrete concern, which she adapted to. Thus, she ensured anonymity throughout the covert part of her project and made limited covert observations from her own personal work perspective and role.

Pierce argues that this gendered division of labor benefits men politically, economically, and personally. However, she also finds that women lawyers and paralegals develop creative strategies for resisting and disrupting this male-dominated status quo of what she called very aggressive “Rambo litigators.”

Organ Trafficking

Scheper-Hughes, a professor of medical anthropology, conducted a controversial study of organ trafficking, which was to have a significant and concrete impact on policy and resulted in a considerable amount of media coverage and prosecutions, in collaboration with the South African Police Force. Her study influenced wider debates about medical human rights and played a direct part in setting up an innovative organ watch project. For her, the topic is “as forbidden a topic as witchcraft, incest or paedophilia” (Scheper-Hughes, 2004, p. 31).

She took on several important faked roles in what she describes as an “undercover ethnography” to access and collect sensitive information. Hence, she briefly posed as a kidney buyer in a suitcase market in Istanbul and also posed as a relative of a patient looking to purchase or broker a kidney in person and over telephones. Scheper-Hughes struggled to get institutional funding and support for the project initially but managed to get approval by making a compelling case to the Institutional Review Board (IRB) about policy impact and social justice. She was given exceptional dispensation to carry out the research, and her pioneering research has been internationally recognized by various bodies. Her approach is a form of “militant anthropology” and “enraged ethnography.”

Police Work

In his landmark study City Police, journalist Rubinstein (1973) elegantly portrays the everyday rhythm of police work “on the street.” His gate-keeping study was semicovert in that although the police officers he worked with knew about his role, officers from other areas and any members of the public he encountered were not told.

In a British context, Holdaway’s (1983) Inside the British Police: A Force at Work, was based on his two-year covert study of the occupational culture of the London Metropolitan Police. Young (1991) in An Inside Job: Policing and Police Culture, similarly provides an insider covert account whilst serving as a police officer in Newcastle and Northumbria. Both Holdaway (1983) and Young (1991), having been in the police force for a number of years prior to their academic doctoral projects, usefully capitalizing on their retrospective biographies and are early and insightful insider accounts of police work.

Prison Culture

The classic work done on institutionalization was done by the famous sociologist Erving Goffman. His year-long semicovert ethnography on Asylums (1961), which had gate-keeping arrangements with senior medical staff, was to have a seminal influence on prison ethnography and healthcare fields, particularly with his ideas on the “mortification of self,” which was akin to identity-stripping. Although the context was a mental hospital, and hence therapeutic, clear control issues were at the forefront, and many of the patients were perceived and hence treated as “criminally insane,” to use an older phrase. Goffman clearly had a dual research role in this “total institution,” as both a covert researcher and a working member of staff. Many scholars have been frustrated by the paucity of his reflections on such a challenging role. For Goffman, participant observation was a form of witnessing that could provide valuable insights into subcultural behavior, and his later sketchy but instructive reflections on participant observation were to view as a form of “witnessing.” Goffman, along with Humphreys, Rosenhan, and Milgram, are what I broadly characterize as the classical “usual suspects” of covert research. There is a dedicated scholarship on their seminal influence on the social sciences.

As prisons are beset with sensitive access problems, there is limited covert work in this field. Fleisher (1989), an anthropologist, spent a year at the maximum security Federal Penitentiary at Lompoc, California, in the United States, after training and becoming a certified federal corrections officer. This participant observation study explored the culture of violence in the context of overcrowded warehouse-type superprisons. Fleisher stresses that his covert role gained him the respect of fellow officers, when he revealed this at a later stage in the study, which ironically led him to training future correctional officers in the prison.

Recreational Drug Use

Ward, for her doctoral research, which formed the basis of her book Flashback: Drugs and Dealing in the Golden Age of the London Rave Scene (2010), explored drug users and sellers in the rave dance scene in London over a five-year period over a range of public and private settings, including nightclubs, dance parties, pubs, and houses. Her reflexive and experiential research was semicovert and heavily utilized a friendship network to explore this sensitive and illegal subculture.

Jaimangal-Jones’s (2014) ethnographic investigations of the contemporary dance culture in the U.K. involved a mixed-methods approach, which also included covert participation as an initial step, at a number of different dance events and festival. Such a covert bystander approach makes sense in terms of researching collective crowd behavior at such events with a large number of participants were informed consent would realistically be problematic.

Sexual Deviance

A very early example of the study of sexual deviance, from the famous sociology department at the University of Chicago was The Taxi-Dance Hall: A Sociological Study in Commercialized Recreation and City Life by Paul Cressey (1932).

Cressey, whilst serving as a case-worker and special investigator for the Juvenile Protective Association, in the summer of 1925 was asked to report on the new and then unfamiliar phenomena of “closed dance halls,” open to male patrons only, and their recreational value for young people in Chicago. Moral crusades had closed several of them down, and they had been under public scrutiny for some time.

Longitudinal material was gathered over a five-year period, which was an impressive length of time in the field, from the experiences and observations of a team of covert investigators. Cressey described their roles thus: “The investigators functioned as anonymous strangers and casual acquaintances” (1932, pp. xix–xx). Cressey stresses the commercialization of the female dancers rather poetically: “It is a mercenary and silent world—this world of the taxi-dance hall. Feminine society is for sale, and at a neat price” (1932, p. 11). This was a pioneering early study of sex work in the shape of sensual close dancing.

When the study was published in 1932, the taxi dance halls were under moral and political attack and were often the sensationalist front cover of newspapers, although Cressey took a more sympathetic stance towards them. Salerno accurately stresses that Cressey “opened doors for similar researchers and made it easier for others concerned with so-called bad subjects” (2006, p. 141).

The Laud Humphreys trope is another landmark study found in most research and ethic texts. The goal of his infamous doctoral study, Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places (1970, 1975), was to describe and analyze “the social structure of impersonal sex” (1970, p. 14), which at the time in the U.S. was seen as sexually deviant and a prosecutable criminal act.

Contrary to popular belief, his study was semicovert, as it also included interview data with his “intensive dozen” of key informants. Humphreys is also very keen to point out that this is a study of public sexuality and not strictly limited to homosexuality, although many of the participants were gay men. Humphreys’s method was a voyeuristic one where he acted as a passive participant observer in his role as a “watch queen” or lookout for the vigilant police vice squad.

Much of the controversy centered on the latter phases of the research, which he later regretted, where he traced license plates of cars that tearoom participants drove followed by fake health surveys at their personal homes. Humphreys, who was a gay man himself trapped in a heterosexual marriage, was partly motivated to counter the stigma attached to tearoom trade and vigorously question public policy and police activity around it. The activism of Humphreys is very clear throughout his book. He was to have a seminal impact not only on academia within sexuality studies (Tewksbury, 2004) but also on practicing lawyers and attorneys who quoted his work in the defense of prosecution court cases against men involved in public sex, which he was very proud of.


One of the classic early semicovert study of workplace theft was Jason Ditton’s Part-Time Crime: An Ethnography of Fiddling and Pilferage (1977), where he explored a medium-sized factory production bakery in the southeast of England for his doctoral studies. His two-year study started out as covert and then shifted to overt. Ditton explores the process of learning to become a thief as a recruit bread salesman and the normalization of theft and pilferage in the industry. Hence, it was not deviant but a case of normal occupational crime found in various industries and workplaces.

Shoplifting is a typical “hidden crime” that has most often been studied using official, secondary statistical data provided by either retail security personnel or law enforcement officers, with obvious problems of bias. Buckle and Farrington (1984), from a criminology background, conducted a pioneering study of shoplifting by covertly observing shoppers in a department chain store in a city in the southeast of England over a three-week period, with the cooperation of staff in the store and the company. Dabney et al. (2004) examine shoplifting by covert observation with an unobtrusive CCTV system installed in a retail drug store chain in Atlanta, in the United States, with the gate-keeping permission of the store. What this brief survey of covert studies in criminology and criminal justice demonstrates is its diversity and hopefully impact on both academia and some policy areas. Clearly, the covert role is rarely a fixed state but a shifting continuum. Many of the studies have gate-keeping and key informants with very few being of a purist type.

Some Confessions From Being a Covert Nomadic Bouncer

The following confessions and reflections are based on a covert study of bouncers in the nighttime economy of Manchester (2000, 2008, 2013, 2017). This was a type of auto-ethnography, which extended over a period of years as the exit from the field was a rather protracted one. What I have referred to as the postfieldwork self. This was a purist type of covert research that did not involve any retrospective debriefings. My passing in the setting was assisted by my prior training in martial arts and local knowledge of the setting. This was partly my biographical backyard. I was interested in exposing and exploring the stereotypes around violence and masculinity that bouncers were embedded within. I worked on a number of different doors as well as eavesdropped on other doors I was not working on. This postdoctoral project was partly self-funded but also had mentoring support from my previous doctoral supervisor, a respected sociology professor at Manchester University.

A whole range of ethical moments (Guilleman & Gillam, 2004) were encountered in doing a covert study of bouncers in the Manchester nighttime economy over a six-month period. The fieldwork dynamic here was the art, ethics, and politics of “getting on the door and staying there” (Calvey, 2000). The various ethical dilemmas such as witnessing interpersonal violence became matters of situated judgments (Calvey, 2008) in the doing of fieldwork rather than abstracted matters of good and best ethical practice. Namely, a sort of grounded “here-and-now ethics” which made sense in the setting at the time.

Bouncers are a highly stigmatized and demonized occupational group, who are strongly associated with stereotypical assumptions about both criminality and masculinity. I wanted to critically investigate this occupation and subculture by covert immersion. I was applying a sort of “criminological verstehen” (Ferrel, 1998) here by trying to inhabit the “bouncer self,” albeit for a temporary period of time. For me, by such intimate immersion and embodiment, I could gain a uniquely rich empathetic picture of the topic, although this came with a range of ethical and emotional problems and baggage.

Similar to Winlow (2001), in his covert study of bouncers in the North-East of England, I also am “a product of the very culture I attempt to describe” (2001, p. 5). Various types of risk and dangers formed part of the routine occupational territory that I was embedded in. My bodily capital (Wacquant, 2000) and cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1984) aided my credible passing in the setting. Put simply, I looked and talked like a bouncer. I was one of the lads doing the doors.

Doing this type of work came with certain expectations and obligations. The research process and setting had a type of ambient danger (Brewer, 1993; Lee, 1995; Sluka, 1990; Yancey & Rainwater, 1970). For example, if the police inquired about any incidents, loyalty to a type of bouncer code (Wieder, 1974) was assumed and it was expected that I would not effectively “grass” (inform) to them and disclose any incriminating information. We stuck together in a classic “them and us” relationship. Namely, a type of bonding camaraderie and fictive kinship. Although, we represented the pub or club, the door was our territory, our remit of control, our ghetto, with rules, rituals, and a logic that made sense to us.

Reasonable force could be exercised in the job, within the parameters of the law. Although violence was not commonplace, it was an accepted and hence ambient part of the environment. The fear of violence rather than the actuality of it could then mediate the typical behavior of door staff, which was mainly concerned with deterrent work and the persona or mask required to do such deterrent work. Most of the violence I witnessed during the fieldwork was between customers, with bouncers often adjudicating between disputes and dispersing and de-escalating potential violence. Hence, the focus on conflict between bouncers and customers, for me, can be exaggerated and misplaced.

It is commonly acknowledged that bouncers are doing a type of private policing and are the primary agents of social control in the nighttime economy (Hobbs et al., 2000, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2007; Lister, 2002; Lister et al., 2000, 2001). What Rigakos (2002, 2008) would elegantly characterize as a “new para police.” Although bouncers are clear gatekeepers and regulators in the nighttime economy spaces (Monaghan, 2006) they typically trade on an autonomous distinction and distance from the police, and for some, a pronounced cynical distrust of them. Bouncing was also centrally about, drawing on the famous work of the Chicago school sociologist E. C. Hughes, the “dirty work” (Ashforth & Kreiner, 1999; Hughes, 1951; Lofstrand et al., 2016) of the nighttime economy like dealing with intoxicated customers and coping with interpersonal violence.

Kate O’Brien (2009), in her semicovert role as a female bouncer, reflects cogently on the ethical dilemmas of being a feminist researcher and squaring this with dealing with complex issues of the protection of vulnerable young women in her fieldwork period. Role differentiation becomes quite blurred and challenging in practice. What O’Brien et al. (2008) and O’Brien (2009) refers to as “gendering the security gaze,” which is neglected and underresearched, as most accounts exploit ideas of forms of hypermasculinity. More inside accounts from feminist researchers are certainly called for in this area.

Monaghan (2002, 2003, 2004, 2006) in his study of bouncers also reflects on the “personal turmoil” and sources of “personal anxiety” in his ethnography of bouncers, including his accounting of the use of force to the police. Indeed, for Monaghan, the territory of door work is saturated with legal risks, which doormen, on the whole, manage to skillfully navigate in ambiguous and difficult contexts.

My ethnography “at the edge” (Lyng, 2005), which involved witnessing certain aspects of illegality and criminality, was a “lived intensity” (Ferrell & Hamm, 1998) and “experiential immersion” (Ferrell, 1998). I had “surrendered” (Wolff, 1964) to the setting culturally and psychologically, accepting certain rules, mores, and activities, which has to be emotionally managed, both during and after the fieldwork period. Doing this type of covert ethnography was similar to an apprenticeship (Forrest, 1986) in terms of learning the subcultural ropes. I hope to have presented door work not as exotica or crude subjugation but as a particular type of emotional labor (Hochschild, 1983).

I managed a series of guilt syndromes and ethical dilemmas about doing this type of covert approach throughout the fieldwork period. It was emotionally very challenging and demanding work, which is not to overly romanticize it. The important issue to flag here is that ethics then becomes a doing rather than a textbook set of principles. For me, the ethical costs and various risks were worth taking in terms of gaining a different and hopefully some faithful (Bittner, 1973) insights into their daily realities.

A Revival of Covert Ethnography

For me there has been a revival of sorts in covert ethnography, which does not mean that it will now become a majority position in social research. Despite the opposition to covert research on ethical grounds in many quarters, this revival is in part how different popular ethnographic research modes such as auto-ethnography and cyber-ethnography have, in different ways, obviated the issue of deception and the associated ethical dilemmas. Auto-ethnography is typically justified from a personal experiential standpoint. Cyber-ethnography, in the form of lurking, is justified by typically being nonintrusive, nonparticipatory, and dealing with public domain data. Confidentiality is still dealt with routinely by using anonymity and pseudonyms with the data.

That being said, covert research is still likely to remain a niche and maverick stance within the field of criminology and criminal justice. Two of the key reasons for the recent revival, coupled with an increase in the appetite for undercover investigative journalism, has been the recent rise of both auto-ethnography and cyber-ethnography as increasingly popular ways to explore a range of phenomena in the social science community, some of which is centered on criminological and criminal justice topics.

These two growth areas are complex and dispersed fields in themselves, with a variety of different styles being adopted. Not all of these styles are covert, so it is not to say that such developments are simply a species of covert research. Rather, what I do hope to highlight here is that these two ethnographic developments have some covert dimensions and consequences in some cases, which are worth considering further.


The auto-ethnographic genre, although relatively new, has been well documented (Anderson, 2006; Denshire, 2014; Ellis, 1995, 1999, 2000, 2004, 2007, 2009; Ellis et al., 2011; Ellis & Rawicki, 2013; Jewkes, 2011; Hayano, 1979; Humphreys, 2005; Reed-Danahay, 1997). Clearly such a genre is diverse in terms of styles and is on the rise in the social science community and introduces some covert dimensions to the methodological landscape. Some early auto-ethnographies stand out, although they were not described as that at their time of publication.

Ned Polsky’s famous study of poolroom hustling, Hustlers, Beats, and Others (1967) was clearly embedded in his own autobiographical experiences in the poolrooms for over 20 years, mainly around New York. John Irwin entered graduate school as an exconvict. Having been imprisoned for five years for the armed robbery of a gas station, his influential book The Felon (1970), which became a classic in criminology and prison studies, clearly draws on his lived experiences as a criminal as well as interview data with a variety of other career criminals such as hustlers, junkies, and thieves.

More recently, Holdaway’s (1983) Inside the British Police Force and Young’s (1991) An Inside Job, mentioned previously, capitalize on their biographical knowledge. The rich first-hand experiences of Richard Jones (1995) on prison life, encouraged by the prior classic work of Irwin (1970), is drawn from his diaries from his year’s sentence in a maximum-security prison, where he collaborated, with permission, with his academic teacher on various publications. In such a unique collaboration not everyone knew of his dual role.

In rare cases, some auto-ethnographic research can become genuinely dangerous. In 1993, Rik Scarce, while a doctoral student at Washington State University, spent five months in jail on a federal contempt of court charge rather than reveal details of his research interviews with militant animal rights and liberation activists, who were involved in significant criminal vandalism and investigated by the FBI. Scarce later reflected on his experiences, including his imprisonment, as part of a growing “convict auto-ethnography,” in various publications including his provocative book Contempt of Court: A Scholar’s Battle for Free Speech From Behind Bars (2005).

More recently, there has been a call to value the distinct tradition of convict auto-ethnography from former prisoners. Newbold et al. elegantly argue: “the passion engendered by the experience of incarceration can add color, context, and contour . . . and may therefore be regarded as an essential thread in the tapestry of criminological inquiry” (2014, p. 439).

Despite the various instructive critiques of auto-ethnography (Atkinson, 1997, 2006; Buzard, 2003; Delamont, 2009; Sparkes, 2002; Tolich, 2010), ultimately for me, it is an innovative methodological work in progress, which has some productive links to covert research and should be further explored as part of the methodological toolkit available to ethnographers in criminology and criminal justice.


Various researchers have pointed to the significant growth in cyber-ethnography (Hallett & Barber, 2014; Hine, 2000, 2005; Murthy, 2008; Kozinets, 2010). Related to this has been the rise in online lurking, which is a covert strategy and move. The need for informed consent has not gone away in the cyber world but has radically changed shape and is clearly more difficult to regulate in this digital environment. The public rather than private nature of some of data, for some, makes various sensitive topics and illicit subcultures more expedient to research.

Blevins and Holt (2009) explore the sensitive topic of the virtual subculture of Johns, male heterosexual clients of sex workers, in ten cities in the United States, which had the highest arrest rates for prostitution. They lurked online and explored specific public web forums run by and for male customers who regularly visit female prostitutes. Blevins and Holt stress: “These types of studies will improve our knowledge of the ways the Internet facilitates deviant communication and crime in the new millennium” (Blevins & Holt, 2009, p. 639). If Laud Humphreys, the author of the infamous Team Room Trade (1970, 1975), discussed previously, were around I am very confident that he would have been exploring public sex like “dogging” partly via online lurking.

Lurking is an obvious strategy than can be used to explore extreme cyber-hate (Mock, 2000; Whine, 1999; Zickmund, 1997). Daniels (2009) covertly explored cloaked websites, who actively conceal authorship and have temporary sites, as cyberspaces for propaganda, extreme values and cyber-racism in the digital era.

It is clear that a diverse range of sensitive topics have been explored by covert lurking and it reasonable to assume that this is likely to increase. Murthy accurately argues that “the rise of digital ethnographies has the potential to open new directions in ethnography” (2008, p. 837).

There are growing concerns with ethical protocols in doing Internet research (Flicker et al., 2004; Rosenberg, 2010). Some of these new directions could be one within the fields of criminology and criminal justice.

Concluding Sentiments: A Creative Role for Covert Research in Criminology and Criminal Justice

The perennial question applied here is: Do the means justify the ends? Namely, do the research findings justify the potential harm to human subjects who have been observed without their consent. This debate often relies on an ideal type view of informed consent, when it can be, in reality, partial, messy, and complex. The debate also can be based on an inflated view of the potential harm, risk and danger of covert research. For me, covert work can be justified by providing a different type of insider insight from overt investigations. That is not to say that covert research can be seen as a panacea and should be used belligerently in any criminological and criminal justice setting. Clearly, sensitivities to vulnerable groups and legal limitations must be continually adapted to but, covert work is hugely underutilized and could push the analytic envelope further.

Covert research can be a highly opportunistic strategy and tactic that would make sense in researching a range of disorder issues in public crowds, mobs, and social movements through bystander research where one can easily collect eavesdropped data and observations. Clearly, this is not without risks and must be sensibly executed.

There is a limited dedicated literature on covert research, but, for me, much more rehabilitation work needs to be done in this area to uncover instructive covert gems and for researchers to engage with significant, if controversial, debates around covert research in the criminological community rather than sweep them under the carpet as an intellectual horror. The tradition remains, despite being marginalized by many, and offers alternative ways to explore criminality and illegality in contemporary society.

Covert research has been and is still commonly accused of suffering from forms of partisanship and bias. For some, it has simply “taken a side” (Becker, 1967), “gone native” in a disguised form (Denzin, 1968), and is a deceitful betrayal of trust (Homan, 1980). However, this does not mean to say that covert researchers necessarily endorse the values and views of the topic they investigate and have lost any capacity for critical commentary. Also, covert ethnographers have not simply lost all ethicality in choosing to undertake covert research, as forms of ethical self-regulation are still applied in various ways. Moreover, on closer inspection, many covert ethnographies are not purist but realistically undertake more shifting research roles which combine overt and covert stances over a fieldwork period (Lugosi, 2006).

In the current climate of branding and reputation management, universities have become generally much more risk-averse, with covert ethnography being ultimately stifled under such an ethical regime (Hedgecoe, 2016; Librett & Perrone, 2010; Whitaker, 2005). Hammersley (2010) sums this up very cogently, in his journal title “Creeping Ethical Regulation and the Strangling of Research.” Ethically, it is not a situation where a crude blanket “one size fits all” but one where each method is explored in terms of its appropriateness, merits, and limitations (Iphofen, 2009, 2011; Van den Hoonaard, 2011). Unfortunately, an alarmist hypersensitivity to covert ethnography is often the case, which leads to it being rather demonized and marginalized in many research communities.

Covert ethnography is a different kind of ethnography amongst the wide variety of different ethnographic styles and choices. It has different sensibilities around storytelling and immersion can significantly enhance our understanding of criminality in society. We need to look beyond and dig deeper, not ignore in any cavalier fashion, the controversy and stigma surrounding the covert tradition and value its contribution to the fields of criminology and criminal justice. Covert ethnography, although clearly not to everyone’s analytic taste and definitely not appropriate for some settings and groups, should become a more standard part of the criminological imagination for both students and professional researchers and academics.

Further Reading

Bulmer, M. (Ed.). (1982). Social research ethics: An examination of the merits of covert participant observation. London: Macmillan Press Limited.Find this resource:

    Calvey, D. (2008). The art and politics of covert research: Doing “situated ethics” in the field. Sociology, 42(5), 905–918.Find this resource:

      Calvey, D. (2013). Covert ethnography in criminology: A submerged yet creative tradition in criminology. Current Issues in Criminal Justice, 25(1), 541–550.Find this resource:

        Calvey, D. (2000). Getting on the door and staying there: A covert participant observational study of bouncers. In G. Lee-Treweek & S. Linkogle (Eds.), Danger in the field: Risk and ethics in social research (pp. 43–60). London: Routledge.Find this resource:

          Calvey, D. (2017). Covert research: The art, ethics and politics of undercover fieldwork. London: SAGE.Find this resource:

            Ferrell, J., & Hamm, M. S. (Eds.). (1998). Ethnography at the edge: Crime, deviance, and field research (pp. 20–43). Boston: Northeastern University Press.Find this resource:

              Herrera, C. D. (1993). A clash of methodology and ethics in “undercover” social science. Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 33(3), 351–362.Find this resource:

                Herrera, C. D. (1999). Two arguments for “covert methods” in social research. British Journal of Sociology, 50(2), 331–343.Find this resource:

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                    Lyng, S. (Ed.). (2005). Edgework: The sociology of risk taking. New York: SAGE.Find this resource:

                      Miller, M. (1995). Covert participant observation: reconsidering the least used method. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 11(2), 97–105.Find this resource:

                        Murthy, D. (2008). Digital ethnography: An examination of the use of new technologies for social research. Sociology, 42(5), 837–855.Find this resource:

                          Newbold, G., Ross, J. I., Jones, R. S., Richards, S. C., & Lenza, M. (2014). Prison research from the inside: The role of convict autoethnography. Qualitative Inquiry, 20(4), 439–448.Find this resource:

                            Pearson, G. (2009). The researcher as hooligan: Where ‘participant’ observation means breaking the law. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 12(3), 243–255.Find this resource:

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