Undercover Ethnography

Undercover Ethnography

Undercover Ethnography is a very useful and appropriate method in unconventional and highly descriptive qualitative research. There are research problems, objectives and data that cannot be adequately addressed and generated by conventional research methods. Problems like prostitution, criminality, drug addiction, cartels, underground movements and corruption are best understood -- deeply qualitatively -- through unconventional research methods. Undercover Ethnography is also one of the unexplored areas in general ethnographic research designs.

My book - Fixing Society: The Inside World of Fixers in the Philippines (2007) - primarily employed Undercover Ethnography. Fixing Society got the 2008 Outstanding Book Award given by the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST).

Click to view Fixing Society (2007)
Click to view Award (2008)

What is Undercover Ethnography?

Undercover Ethnography is an uncommon and unaccustomed research method influenced by and using a combination of investigative journalism and police undercover techniques in investigating corruption issues. The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) has perfected and made very good use of investigative journalism in exposing corruption. The many works of Gary Marx in police surveillance methods provide the excellent source of theoretical and methodological foundations for undercover research. In the context of Fixing Society, Undercover Ethnography employed a combination of decoy conversations, concealed interviews and feigning techniques complemented by the ever useful qualitative methods of nonparticipant observation (agency immersion in disguise), key informants' interviews (KIIs), focused group discussions (FGDs) and archival research.

Marx identifies some of the useful undercover strategies like feigning as decoys to infiltrate organized crime and corruption for intelligence collection purposes, whose end goal is preparedness and prevention. Thus in Fixing Society, these strategies were also very useful in gaining access to fixers only in as far as the study aimed to understand them (for preparedness) and generated recommendations to address fixing (for prevention). Because of its sensitive nature, the study was somewhat similar to the covert methods employed by investigative researchers and journalists, undercover agents, deep penetration informers, spies and scouts, detectives and moles in generating information that are otherwise difficult to gather in conventional research methods.


Amorado, Ronnie V. 2007. Fixing Society: The Inside World of Fixers in the Philippines. Davao City: Ateneo de Davao University - Research and Publication Office.

Marx, Gary T. 1987. “The Interweaving of Public and Private Police Undercover Work.” In C. Shearing. and P. Stenning. Private Policing. Sage Publications.

Marx, Gary T. 1995. “Recent Developments in Undercover Policing.” In T. Blomberg and S. Cohen. Punishment and Social Control: Essays in Honor of Sheldon Messigner.

Marx, Gary T. 1995. “The Use of Undercover Methods in Corruption Investigation.” Paper presented at the 7th International Anticorruption Conference. Beijing, October 6-10, 1995.

Marx, Gary T. 1995. Undercover: Police Surveillance in Comparative Perspective. Norwell, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism at http://www.pcij.org/