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date: 25 February 2021

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

  • David CalveyDavid CalveyDepartment of Sociology, Manchester Metropolitan University


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.

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