Framing "Deception" and "Covertness" in Research: Do Milgram, Humphreys, and Zimbardo Justify Regulating Social Science Research Ethics?


  • Dvora Yanow Wageningen University
  • Peregrine Schwartz-Shea University of Utah



deception, covert research, MILGRAM, HUMPHREYS, ZIMBARDO, ROSENHAN, LEO, ethics review, human subjects protection regulations, field research, beneficence


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.


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Author Biographies

Dvora Yanow, Wageningen University

A guest professor at Wageningen University, Dvora YANOW is a political ethnographer and interpretive methodologist whose teaching and research engage the generation and communication of knowing and meaning in policy and organizational settings. Her present research explores state-created categories for race-ethnic identity, immigrant integration policies, and citizen-making practices, in addition to state policies regulating research ethics and interpretive methodologies, both with Peregrine SCHWARTZ-SHEA. Their "Interpretive Research Design" (2012) launched their co-edited Routledge Series on Interpretive Methods; the second edition of their co-edited "Interpretation and Method" was published in 2014. She has been awarded fellowships at the Rockefeller Foundation's Bellagio Center and the Käte Hamburger Kolleg/Institute for Global Cooperation Research.

Peregrine Schwartz-Shea, University of Utah

Peregrine SCHWARTZ-SHEA, professor of political science, peregrinated from experimental methods and rational choice theory to focus on methodological practices in political science, particularly interpretive methods. With Dvora YANOW she is coeditor of the Routledge Series on Interpretive Methods; their coauthored "Interpretive Research Design: Concepts and Processes" (2012) is the first volume in the series. They have been collaborating on institutional review board policy research since 2006. Professor SCHWARTZ-SHEA is past president of the Western Political Science Association (2012-13) and recipient of a National Science Foundation grant to co-organize the Workshop on Interpretive Methodologies in Political Science (2009).




How to Cite

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 Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 19(3).



Research Ethics in Qualitative Research