Posted by: kelliroesch | May 12, 2013

Undercover observation: a reality show for wannabe ethnographers?

undercover boss imagesUndercover Boss is a show that gives viewers a peek at what employees do while unknowingly working with the CEO. It uses video to get a glimpse of their daily operations and interactions. While the show may not be considered ethnographic fieldwork, components mimic what Lindoff/Taylor share in Chapter 5 of Qualitative Communication Research Methods and can provide insight on employee behavior otherwise not visible to the general public.

Undercover Boss CEOs are what Lindoff/Taylor call “complete participants” in observing employees because the CEOs are in disguise but are being filmed and trained on the workers daily tasks. According to Lindoff/Taylor “the complete participants role thus positions us to use our empathetic and sense making capabilities to understand social action as it “naturally occurs in a setting”(p.145). The presence of the camera is not acknowledged.

Occasionally CEOs make spontaneous decisions to fire an employee or temporarily close a business. They do this when egregious situations arise, and often, they come out of disguise to immediately stop the inappropriate actions of an employee.

Lindoff/Taylor argue that contemporary fieldworkers do not embrace the role of complete participant for four reasons; lack of freedom of movement in the scene, worry about blowing their cover, losing analytic detachment, and it is an ethical challenge. On Undercover Boss Lindoff/Taylor’s concerns are part of what makes the show interesting, although the ethical challenge isn’t addressed and it isn’t considered scientific research. Ultimately, the CEOs and the employees are changed due to the information collected during the show.



  1. Really interesting analogy Kelli! Imagine if more managers took the time to truly know not only their consumer, but their internal audiences.

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