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Yanow, D., & Schwartz-Shea, P. (2018). Framing “Deception” and “Covertness” in Research: Do Milgram, Humphreys, and Zimbardo Justify Regulating Social Science Research Ethics? Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung, 19(3), Art. 15. https://doi.org/10.17169/fqs-19.3.3102


No systematic assessment exists that justifies the extension of ethics regulations to non-experimental social science research. Instead, three studies—by MILGRAM, HUMPHREYS, and ZIMBARDO—are repeatedly cited to support such regulation, based on their use of deception and/or covertness. Challenging such regulation requires these studies' detailed re-examination. In this article we offer a critique of deception and covert research as understood solely within the context of experimentation: that framing of those research activities has narrowed their consideration in ways that do a disservice to social science research (as comparison with studies by ROSENHAN and LEO further clarifies). We show that, controversial as they may have been, these projects met a key ethics principle: "beneficence," something ignored by most of the critics assessing their work. Theorizing deception and covertness, we establish distinctions between them and argue for the importance of their use in studies of powerful individuals and organizations, as current political climates make evident.