Investigative Research

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Investigative research is a name given to a collection of research techniques and methods used by researchers (including journalists, social scientists and others). It is intended to unearth secret, hidden or obscure information that can build a more comprehensive picture of the issue under investigation.


Jack Douglas advocated ‘investigative’ social research in his 1976 book. He sums up the approach as follows: ‘conflict is the reality of life, suspicion is the guiding principle’.[1] Lee criticises this by noting the potential for the scepticism necessary to ‘harden into cynicism and a contempt for those studied’.[2]


Access to information is a major problem for all researchers, but is felt particularly by investigative researchers who are more likely to come up against refusals and to challenge them. Powerful organisations often attempt to limit access by a variety of techniques. These do not always involve threats of violence as in this example:

If you try and inspect them, I will personally break your legs (Chairman of the company publishing Burke’s Peerage to journalists investigating lack of company documentation submitted to Companies House)[3]

The Royal Ulster Constabulary was a notoriously closed organisation for researchers and its policy on research issued after the 1994 IRA ceasefire made its instrumental view

We welcome requests... to conduct research which may prove to be of benefit to the force.[4]

However, powerful organisations may allow social researchers access for a variety of reasons. Kevin Williams writes:

In spite of the difficulties - and these are many and real - the powerful can be more open and co-operative than many social scientists believe. They are often prepared to discuss matters and in many cases welcome the chance to place their views on the record. their motives are mixed. they can emanate from a desire to correct what they see as misconceptions of their role and work. ... Talking to a researcher appears to be one of the few channels of communication they have with the public. The powerful also talk to the researcher to counter challenges from other interests within their institution. Powerful institutions are not monolithic. a large number of interests exist inside institutions... which are in a state of flux and change. Such a situation can work in the researcher’s favour. [5]

Covert methods

Gunter Walraff is a German investigative journalist who specialises in going undercover to reveal abuses of power. His work is excoriated by corporate lobby groups such as the West German Employers association:

When [Walraff] describes an industry on the basis of his ‘research’, his writing is characterised by a consistent scale of social values which could by fashioned only by a conscious ideologist of class struggle. Each of Walraff’s publications reaches us as a hatefilled social-political campaign aimed at strengthening the machinations of class struggle. His purpose is to arouse among workers by hand and brain a class-consciousness which they will ultimately use to destroy the social system. his methods of investigation and documentation must be categorically condemned; the logical consequence of his point of view is that the end justifies any means and that all sense of responsibility is lost.[6]


Guidance on specific investigative techniques

Guidance on sources of information and tools

Press and Media databases

Email services

Mailinator. Allows you to generate a free one-time only, incoming-only email address

Archives (Scotland)

Glasgow University HBoS RBS National Archives of Scotland Scottish Executive Consultations Scottish Executive Publications Glasgow City Council Archives

Resources on lobbying/corporate power

Freedom of Information

For more see the page on Freedom of Information

Government Offices, Official Sources

Departmental pages

Web research

Corporate information

Further Reading

See Also


  1. cited in Lee, 1993: 147.
  2. 1993: 148.
  3. cited in Scott, 1990:164
  4. Superintendent B. D. Wilson, Force Research Branch, RUC, 1997, cited n Miller, D. (1998) 'Colonialism and Academic Representations of the Trouble', in Miller, D. (Ed.) Rethinking Northern Ireland, London: Longman
  5. Williams, K. (1989). Researching the powerful: problems and possibilities of social research. Contemporary Crises, 13(3): 255.
  6. W. German employers association statement on work of Gunter Walraff, cited in Walraff, G. (1978) Walraff: the Undesirable Journalist, London: Pluto.: p. 1