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Covert Research

Covert Research
The Art, Politics and Ethics of Undercover Fieldwork

First Edition

March 2017 | 248 pages | SAGE Publications Ltd

Undercover research is an emotive and controversial field often equated with deception and transgression.  Using classic examples and contemporary case studies this book challenges covert research’s dispersed place within the social sciences and rehabilitates its reputation as a powerful research method.

Drawing in part on his own undercover research into the night-time economy of bouncers, the author explores the roots and evolution of covert research; his deft treatment of the fear and fascination within furtive fieldwork is grounded in the practicality of the methods and tools needed to conduct quality research in the field.

Packed with learning-by-example tips, this book shows that with critical imagination and proper ethical foundations, covert research could be a great addition to your methodological toolkit.

What is covert research?
Early roots of covert research
Debates about covert research
The classic exemplars in covert research
Doing covert research in the social sciences
A covert case study of bouncers in the Manchester night-time economy
A revival in covert research

David Calvey demonstrates that covert research is not an aberrant research method but a substantial analytical tradition in sociology and neighbouring disciplines that has long yielded significant insights into social life. This timely volume will give social scientists a pause for thought.


Greg Smith
Professor of Sociology, University of Salford

 Discussed with insight and enthusiasm, the qualitative studies in this book are truly something wonderful. They show how covert research—even in the face of controversies—can result in important and beneficial outcomes for the research community.

Max Travers
School of Social Sciences, University of Tasmania

Covert research has a long and distinguished tradition, and here David Calvey offers us an illuminating journey through the history and genealogy of hidden, discreet and undercover forms of social inquiry.  Moving beyond the crude and simplifying dismissals of the ‘ethical textbook’, Calvey makes a compelling case for covert research and its ongoing relevance to the contemporary world. From Nellie Bly to the Tearoom Trade, from Garfinkel and Milgram to Calvey’s own undercover work on the nightclub door, this book provides a rich array of examples and exercises, making it a must-have book for any student of covert – and overt – research methodologies.  By setting out to relieve us of our ethical hypochondria and fetish for informed consent, Calvey ventures out figuratively – and literally – into a scholarly field where others fear to tread. 

Mark Banks
Professor of Culture and Communication, University of Leicester

Calvey's book is a remarkably original contribution, with quite extraordinary documentation. The social scientist as detective is one theme which is now his proprietary accomplishment. The studies reviewed and discussed are extensive and quite unprecedented. This is a work which will surely become a classic of its kind: indeed, that 'kind' is Calvey's own!

Jeff Coulter
Professor Emeritus, Sociology, Boston University

Calvey has written a fascinating and judicious review of a wide range of covert research studies to show their substantial contribution as a social research method today. The book includes a historical appreciation of this somewhat maligned tradition and numerous examples of the approach, as well as its practical and ethical problems. Using illustrations from his own research on bouncers, the book is both informative to specialists and accessible to students.
Wes Sharrock
Department of Sociology, University of Manchester

The book should find a place on undergraduate and postgraduate reading lists for specialist ethnography modules or more general methods courses. The message that Calvey clearly communicates throughout this book is both a recommendation of covert research and a more general argument for placing greater trust in researchers to manage field relations sensibly and ethically.

Robin James Smith
Cardiff University

Writing and publishing a book such as Covert Research: The Art, Politics and Ethics of Undercover Fieldwork is daring, courageous, stimulating; something that makes us question our certainties, that makes us unquiet, reflective, and sometimes even to lose our ground, what seems fundamental when living in a sick society like ours.

Igor Vinicius Lima Valentim
Federal University of Rio de Janeiro,

In my view, this book is a must read and must have for every undergraduate student, regardless of the discipline or field of study. It is essential for both the general and experienced researcher in reviewing and perhaps reconsidering fundamental questions in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. Dr. Calvey provides a much-needed sober voice of reason and a clear call for dialogue. He has made a significant contribution which will hopefully generate vigorous discussion, debate and hopefully a re-evaluation of a useful and often maligned research technique.

Ottis Murray
University of North Carolina at Pembroke

Sample Materials & Chapters

Covert Research - Chapter 1

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