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Disguised field observation is the ultimate in participant observation—you join, or pretend to join, some group and secretly record data about people in the group.

In 1960, John H. Griffin, a white journalist went through some drug treatment to temporarily turn his skin black. He traveled the southern United States for about a month, taking notes on how he was treated. His book, Black Like Me (1961) was a real shocker. It galvanized a lot of support by Whites in the North for the then fledgling Civil Rights movement. Clearly, Griffin engaged in premeditated deception in gathering the data for his book. But Griffin was a journalist; scientists don’t deceive their informants, right?

Pseudopatients and Simulated Clients

Wrong. Samuel Sarkodie, an M.A. student in medical sociology at the University of Legon, in Ghana, spent 3 days in a rural hospital in 1994 as a pseudopatient with a false case of malaria. The hospital staff were in on the study—they had been recruited by Sarkodie’s supervisor, Sjaak van der Geest, a Dutch anthropologist who works in Ghana— and Sarkodie wrote a detailed report for the hospital. Presumably, the report was helpful, but Sarkodie’s fellow patients were duped (van der Geest and Sarkodie 1998).

Twenty years earlier, David Rosenhan recruited seven confederates who, like him, checked themselves into mental hospitals and took surreptitious notes about how they were treated. They gave false names and occupations (they couldn’t very well mention their real occupations since three of them were psychologists and one was a psychiatrist), and reported hearing voices. One was diagnosed as manic-depressive, and the rest as schizophrenics, and all were admitted for treatment.

This was tough work. The pseudopatients were not allowed to divulge what they were up to just because they were tired of (or exasperated with) the experiment. The only way out was to be diagnosed by the hospital staff as ready for release. It took between 1 week and 7 weeks of confinement to achieve this, and when they were released, the pseudopatients were all diagnosed with “schizophrenia in remission’’ or as ‘‘asymptomatic’’ or as ‘‘improved’’ (Rosenhan 1973, 1975).

Rosenhan’s field experiment made clear the power of labeling: Once you are diagnosed as insane, people treat you as insane. Period. Some of the genuine inmates at the hospitals saw through the charade, but none of the staff ever did (box 14.5).

BOX 14.5


The simulated client method has been used in dozens of studies to evaluate the performance of physicians, pharmacists, family-planning clinics, and other health care providers in developing nations. (See Madden et al. [1997] for a review of these studies.) And fake clients—men and women, black, white, and Hispanic—are sent out by U.S. government agencies regularly to apply for jobs, to rent apartments, or to buy homes and to uncover discrimination (Sharpe 1998). The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that this practice is legal in the pursuit of fair housing (Ayres 1991:823), and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission uses data from these field experiments to sue offending businesses.

People across the political spectrum have quite different ideas about whether this is just a dose of the same medicine that offenders dish out (which seems fair), or entrapment (which seems foul). Does this mean that ethics are simply a matter of political orientation and opinion? In the abstract, most people answer this question with a strong ''no.'' When things get concrete—when the fortunes and reputations of real people are at stake—the answer becomes less clear (van den Borne 2007).

But if you think deceiving landlords or Realtors or the staff of mental hospitals is something, read on (Further Reading: pseudopatients and simulated clients).

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