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The Tearoom Trade Study

Without telling people that he was studying them, Laud Humphreys (1975) observed hundreds of homosexual acts among men in St. Louis, Missouri. Humphreys’s study produced very important results. The men involved in this tearoom trade, as it is called, came from all walks of life, and many were married and living otherwise straight lives. Humphreys made it clear that he did not engage in homosexual acts himself, but played the role of the ‘‘watch queen,’’ or lookout, warning his informants when someone approached the restroom. This deception and unobtrusive observation, however, did not cause the storm of criticism that accompanied the first publication of Humphreys’s work in 1970.

That was caused by Humphreys having taken his research a step further. He jotted down the license plate numbers of the men who used the restroom for quick, impersonal sex and got their names and addresses from motor vehicle records. He waited a year after doing his observational work, and then, on the pretext that they had been randomly selected for inclusion in a general health survey, he interviewed 100 of his research subjects in their homes.

Humphreys was careful to change his car, his hairstyle, and his dress. According to him, his informants did not recognize him as the man who had once played watch queen for them in public toilets. This is what made Humphreys’s research the focus of another debate, which is still going on, about the ethics of nonreactive field observation.

Five years after the initial study was published, Humphreys himself said that he had made a mistake. He had endangered the social, emotional, and economic lives of people he studied. Had his files been subpoenaed, he could not have claimed immunity. He decided at the time that he would go to jail rather than hurt his informants (Humphreys 1975).

Humphreys was an ordained Episcopal priest who had held a parish for more than a decade before going to graduate school. He was active in the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960s and spent time in jail for committing crimes of conscience. His credentials as an ethical person, conscious of his responsibilities to others, were in good order. Everyone associated with him agreed that Humphreys was totally committed to protecting his informants.

But listen to what Arlene Kaplan Daniels had to say about all this, in a letter to Myron Glazer, a sociologist and ethnographer:

In my opinion, no one in the society deserves to be trusted with hot, incriminating data.

Let me repeat, no one. . . . We should not have to rely on the individual strength of conscience which may be required. Psychiatrists, for example, are notorious gossipers [about their patients]. ... O. K., so they mainly just tell one another. But they sometimes tell wives, people at parties, you and me. [Daniels had done participant observation research on psychiatrists.] And few of them would hold up under systematic pressure from government or whatever to get them to tell. . . . The issue is not that a few brave souls do resist. The issue is rather what to do about the few who will not. . . . There is nothing in our training—any more than in the training of psychiatrists, no matter what they say—to prepare us to take up these burdens. (quoted in Glazer 1975:219-20; emphasis in original)

Researchers who conduct the kinds of studies that Humphreys did invoke several arguments to justify the use of deception.

  • 1. It is impossible to study such things as homosexual encounters in public restrooms in any other way.
  • 2. Disguised field observation is a technique that is available only to researchers who are physically and linguistically indistinguishable from the people they are studying. To use this technique, you must be a member of the larger culture. There is, therefore, no real ethical question involved, other than whether you, as an individual, feel comfortable doing this kind of research.
  • 3. Public places, like restrooms, are, simply, public. The counterargument is that people have a right to expect that their behavior in public toilets will not be recorded, period. (Koocher 1977)

Sechrest and Phillips (1979) take a middle ground. They say that ‘‘public behavior should be observable by any means that protect what might be called ‘assumed’ privacy, the privacy that one might expect from being at a distance from others or of being screened from usual views’’ (p. 14). Casual observation is fine, but the use of telescopes, listening devices, or peepholes would be unethical.

My own position is that the decision to use deception is up to you, provided that the risks of detection are your own risks and no one else’s. When Jack Weatherford (1986) took a job as manager of a porn shop in Washington, DC, the people who came to the store to watch the movies or connect with prostitutes didn’t know they were being studied by a participant observer, but neither were they in any danger that their identities would be divulged. And similarly, when Wendy Chapkis became a licensed massage therapist and became a participant observer in her secret research on prostitution (1997), she assumed risks, but the risks were hers. If detection risks harm to others, then don’t even consider disguised participant observation. Recognize, too, that it may not be possible to foresee the potential harm that you might do using disguised observation. This is what leads scholars like Kai Erikson (1967, 1996) to the conclusion that research that requires deception is never justified (Further Reading: deception in participant observation).

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