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Podschuweit, N. (2021). How ethical challenges of covert observations can be met in practice. Research Ethics, 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1177/17470161211008218


This paper aims to bring into the ethical debate on covert research two aspects that are neglected to date: the perspective of the research subjects and the special responsibility of investigators towards their observers. Both aspects are falling behind, especially in quantitative social research. From a methodological point of view, quantitative forms of covert observation involve a great distance between the researcher and the research subjects. When human observers are involved, the focus is usually on the reliable application of the measuring instrument. Therefore, herein, a quantitative study is used as an example to show how the protection needs of both the observed persons and the observers can be met in practice. The study involved 40 student observers who covertly captured everyday conversations in real-world settings (e.g. in cafés or trains) by a highly standardised observation scheme. The study suggests that the anonymity of the research subjects and their trust in the observers are crucial for their subsequent consent. However, many participants showed only little or even no interest in the written information they were provided. Further, this study strongly emphasises how mentally stressful covert observations are to the observers. Almost all observers were worried in advance that the people they were observing would prematurely blow their cover and confront them. Role-playing and in-depth discussions in teams are good strategies to alleviate such and other fears and to prepare student assistants well for their demanding work in the field.