Posted by: ARNoack | May 11, 2013

Deceptive Ethnography (Necessary or Evil?)

A statement in chapter 5 of Qualitative Communication Research Methods was troubling to me. Page 141 contains this statement, “…as a matter of self-protection, all fieldworkers will inevitably practice some deception, although the types, extent and frequency will vary.” Lindlof and Taylor go on to say that the most important thing is to pay attention to your motivations as a researcher and the consequences for participants. I strongly disagree that outright deception on any kind is appropriate while conducting research. There may be circumstances where researchers passively observe people in a public setting or need to use a different name, but that’s the most “deception” I would ever tolerate.

This reminds me of the McCaskey case study we read for Brian’s class recently. In the article, a researcher at a market research firm in her late 20s named Martha McCaskey poses as a consultant for a start-up semiconductor manufacturer in order to obtain insider information for her client. Initially, McCaskey has reservations about resorting to deception to access trade secrets, but after pressure from her superiors and clients, she gives in against her better judgment. Brian still hasn’t shared with us what exactly happened to Martha, but it didn’t look promising. Deception simply has no place in the professional world, whether academic or corporate.

What do you all think? Is “some deception” a necessary evil or completely off limits when conducting research? When does some deception become too much?


  1. I agree with you Adam. No deception is tolerable. As a matter of fact, IRB is designed to insure the safety of the study participants and the integrity of the researcher and their institutions. We can lose our jobs over it.

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