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Research ethics: Re-evaluating the consequentialist perspective of using covert participant observation in management research

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Purpose ‐ The purpose of this paper is to present empirical evidence that focuses on the use of covert participant observation as a method of data collection and consider the ethical nature of this method as a means to create knowledge that leads to direct management action. This ethical debate centres on issues such as informed consent, rights and consequences. This paper develops the consequentialist argument by reflecting on experiences of using covert participant observation and the consequences of using such a method in empirical management research. Design/methodology/approach ‐ Conducted independently of one another, two empirical case studies highlight the choices made and the justification for using covert participant observation as a means to investigate organisational issues. Findings ‐ The paper concludes that this research method can be used effectively within an ethical framework and suggests that researchers need to be more aware of the potential consequences on themselves in terms of the personal, emotional and trust issues that centre around deception when using covert participant observation. Research limitations/implications ‐ Researchers are now asked to consider the consequences on themselves of conducting covert participant observation and, in particular, to assess the potential problems arising in the form of emotional or personal implications when being deceptive. Originality/value ‐ The ethical debate concerning the rights and consequences of conducting covert participant observation is extended to include a consideration of the consequences for the researcher pertaining to the collection and use of data using this research method. The paper goes beyond the traditional aspects of the debate by extending it to consider the consequences on the researcher of using what is essentially a research method based on deception.
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Keywords: Ethics; Qualitative research; Research methods

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: June 13, 2008

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