The Researcher as Hooligan: Where 'Participant' Observation Means Breaking the Law

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This article focuses on the problems faced by researchers carrying out participant observation in fields where the committal of criminal offences is the norm. Can participation in criminal activity by a researcher be justified on the grounds that it is necessary to prevent the distortion of the field? Alternatively, can the difficulties in gaining and maintaining access in such spheres excuse such conduct? The article considers the current guidance given to researchers in the social sciences and the peculiar pressures placed on them when carrying out fieldwork in ‘criminal’ areas. Examples from the author’s own experiences carrying out covert participant observation within crowds of ‘risk’ football supporters are used to illustrate that in such fields the committal of offences can be unavoidable and that further guidance – but not regulation – is required to protect academics carrying out this type of research.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)243-255
Number of pages12
JournalInternational Journal of Social Research Methodology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2009


  • ethics
  • participant observation
  • football hooliganism
  • criminality


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