'I was a football hooligan, so I had to break the law'

A law lecturer argues that ethics rules must sometimes allow researchers to act illegally in fieldwork. Melanie Newman writes

May 1, 2008

An academic who admits to having acted illegally during undercover research on football hooligans says ethics committees must give researchers permission to break the law when necessary.

Geoff Pearson invaded a football pitch during his fieldwork, and his behaviour while undercover was such that he was branded "hardcore" and "a bit of a nutter" by the hooligans in the group he had infiltrated.

Dr Pearson, lecturer in law at the University of Liverpool Management School, said the behaviour earned the trust of his research subjects. In his paper "The researcher as hooligan", published in the International Journal of Social Research Methodology, he says that ethical codes in the social sciences acknowledge that covert methods may be used, but they give researchers little guidance on how they should be implemented.

"It seems illogical to permit covert activity in fields of criminality but not accept that the researcher may have to commit occasional unlawful acts," he writes in the paper.

He adds that it was vital for him to go undercover to make "direct observations" of subjects because interviews proved to be unreliable. "Often non-violent fans would exaggerate their involvement in disorder whilst serious 'hooligans' tended to play down their involvement for fear of being reported."

Posing as a hooligan himself, he found himself "witnessing criminal offences and being put under pressure to commit them".

Dr Pearson says he had to participate in criminal behaviour in order to avoid raising the hooligans' suspicions. His strategy was to avoid committing major offences but to carry out "minor" ones that would cause no physical harm and that the majority of his research subjects were already committing. In practice, this strategy was hard to follow, he reveals. "On numerous occasions I found myself straying from it either on the basis of my personal morals or to maintain or enhance my position on the field," he says.

On one occasion, when he felt he needed to prove his reliability, he individually confronted a small group of rival supporters in a pub. "The attempt was purely for show as I predicted the group would intervene and prevent any serious physical confrontation," he says. "Nevertheless the action was both criminal (threatening behaviour) and in the short term seriously distorted the field."

He was subsequently accepted as one of the "hardcore", he says, and was told he was "a bit of a nutter" despite opting out of more serious offences. "There were a number of strategies ... that I would now consider difficult to defend," he says.

On other occasions he joined fans in invading the pitch as it was "the best place to observe the intricacies of the confrontation", but says he did not join in racist chanting.

"Even if we accept that the type of strategies I followed could be justified, either by their necessity or outcomes, my approach could still be criticised due to a severe lack of consistency," Dr Pearson says.

A lack of guidance means that researchers in his position have to make their own decisions about ethical justification for their actions. "This position provides little protection for the researcher when it comes to criticism of their methods by their institution, potential funders or the media (or) ... in the event of prosecution by the authorities."

Institutions and research bodies should develop guidelines on how to conduct research in controversial and dangerous fields, he recommends. But he warns that if such guidance were applied as a form of regulation it would "almost certainly" reduce academic freedom.

In "The ethical case against ethical regulation in humanities and social science research", published in the journal Twenty-First Century Society in February, Robert Dingwall says social scientists are handicapped by regulation when it comes to field research.

The professor of sociology at the University of Nottingham says that journalists use deception in pursuit of trivial stories as well as when researching stories about serious wrongdoing, the latter being held up as examples of the sort of books that social scientists ought to write. "Our rivals in social investigation can proceed unchecked, while those of us whose practice is disciplined by a professional ethic ... are handicapped in our access to the public realm," he writes.

The damage that ethical regulation inflicts on society exceeds any harm that the research could cause to individuals, he suggests. His paper reports the case of a graduate who planned to study victims of medical accidents identified through their involvement in a charity. The university ethics committee said the researcher had to get National Health Service ethical clearance, which was refused because the subjects had not been recruited through NHS records.

In another case, a researcher described how he had been welcomed to a factory in Asia for observational fieldwork. When he asked the factory managers to sign consent forms before they were interviewed, they were "grossly offended by the implied lack of trust and disrespect" and withdrew access to the plant.

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com.

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