Covert Qualitative Research as a Method to Study Human Rights Under Authoritarian Regimes

Marieke Hopman*

*Corresponding author for this work

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3 Citations (Web of Science)


This article considers whether covert research methods may be an ethically acceptable method for doing human rights research in areas under control of authoritarian regimes, and, if so, how this research can and should be conducted. The author’s study on the rights of children living in Western Sahara under Moroccan control, where a covert qualitative research method was employed, is taken as a central case study. The article concludes that covert qualitative research in authoritarian zones is ethically acceptable, and sometimes even necessary, under three conditions: 1) the research aims to contribute to the protection of human rights; 2) research subjects remain anonymous; 3) there is no other, overt way to obtain the necessary data. The article aims to present a challenging yet sometimes necessary and valuable method for studying human rights in areas that otherwise may be inaccessible to human rights researchers. It contributes to a longer standing debate on the ethical acceptability of covert research methods, as well as to provide practical guidance to researchers (both academic and non-academic) who are considering using this method to study human rights violations.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)548-564
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Human Rights Practice
Issue number3
Early online date25 Feb 2022
Publication statusPublished - 5 Apr 2022


  • Morocco
  • Western Sahara
  • authoritarian zones
  • covert research
  • methodology
  • qualitative method

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