Undercover is the night
July 8, 2009 6:01 AM   Subscribe

Do you know of any undercover nonfiction stories that don’t involve cops/detectives?

I’m looking to read any magazine articles/books (not blogs) about how someone went undercover as someone else and wrote about their adventures: e.g., another profession. I really like what is revealed in stories like this. Much like here and here. Can you help?
posted by heather-b to Society & Culture (26 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Have you ever read Tracy Kidder? They are not exactly undercover stories, but they are carefully observed from up close: a middle school class, a morgue, building a house, building a computer, etc.
posted by jeb at 6:09 AM on July 8, 2009

The Unlikely Disciple? Liberal secular student from Brown spends a semester at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University pretending to be a born again Christian. He had met some Liberty students before his experiment and was interested in talking to them, but as soon as they found out he wasn't a believer they switched to trying to convert him rather than having a conversation. So, he spent a semester at Liberty "undercover" to get to know the students. His discoveries are funny and surprising.
posted by Meg_Murry at 6:09 AM on July 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Black Like Me
Self-Made Man
posted by ocherdraco at 6:10 AM on July 8, 2009

He wasn't technically undercover, but the not-particularly-religious A.J. Jacobs immerses himself in the bible and follows it literally for a year in The Year of Living Biblically.
posted by nitsuj at 6:13 AM on July 8, 2009

Seconding Black Like Me.
posted by Ponderance at 6:13 AM on July 8, 2009

Obligatory link to The Game - NYT writer goes undercover into the "Pick-up Artist" world. A bit on the ridiculous side, but a fun read.
posted by Phire at 6:14 AM on July 8, 2009

Also, Nickel and Dimed.
posted by ocherdraco at 6:17 AM on July 8, 2009

Günter Wallraff is the undercover journalist. The Wikipedia article has a summary of what he's written about.
posted by bjrn at 6:21 AM on July 8, 2009

Fast Times at Ridgemont High: A True Story by Cameron Crowe?
posted by not.so.hip at 6:54 AM on July 8, 2009

You are looking for the work of Ted Conover. After High School he become a transient and road the rails of the American West. Next, he immersed himself in the culture of the illegal immigrants of the American Southwest including sneaking across the border with them. Lastly, in his most recent and most acclaimed book, New Jack, he became a prison guard at Sing Sing.
posted by mmascolino at 7:55 AM on July 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Nellie Bly's Ten Days in a Madhouse comes to mind.
posted by Phlogiston at 8:02 AM on July 8, 2009

I just read (and absolutely loved) Agent Zigzag, which is the true story of Eddie Chapman, a petty thief, trapped on the island of Jersey by the German invasion who offered to spy for the Germans as a way of getting back to the UK, then promptly turned double agent. It's brilliant.
posted by Happy Dave at 8:25 AM on July 8, 2009

1. Try Bill Buford's "Among the Thugs." Here's part of the wikipedia blurb on the book:

1991's Among the Thugs is purportedly an "insider's" account of the world of (primarily) English football hooliganism. His chief thesis is that the traditional sociological account of crowd theory fails to understand the often complex problem of football violence as a particularly English working-class phenomenon. His years of exhaustive first-hand research as an 'outsider' both in terms of his background and position as a member of the journalistic community is considered by some as one of the great social research documents.

Sounds dry and academic, but the book is anything but that. Fascinating on-the-ground "I was there" accounts of European soccer (sorry, "football"). Buford's other books are also good reads.

2. Also try "Gang Leader for a Day" about a sociologist's field study of gang life in Chicago. It's hilarious and sad and intriguing all at once.
posted by webhund at 8:26 AM on July 8, 2009

Oh man "Among the Thugs" is awesome. Great recommendation A++++++ WOULD HAVE POSTED MYSELF IF NOT DUMB.
posted by jeb at 8:55 AM on July 8, 2009

Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. Ms. Ehrenreich tries to get by working minimum wage jobs.
posted by rdr at 9:09 AM on July 8, 2009

This Edmunds investigative piece on car salesmen was written by an author working a car salesman with the intent of learning about their techniques. It was featured in a recent AskMe about car buying.
posted by Alterscape at 9:25 AM on July 8, 2009

Ferocious Romance, in which Donna Minkowitz cross -dresses and sneaks into a Promise Keepers rally.
posted by OmieWise at 10:27 AM on July 8, 2009

Them: Adventures with Extremists by British journalist Jon Ronson.. It's ostensibly light-hearted (Jewish guy hangs out with KKK, neo-Nazis, etc. -- but very informative and chilling.

The TV shows of Louis Theroux might also fit the bill. He comes across as a wide-eyed innocent, but that means people let their guard down. (I don't think there are any books, though.) Definitely a precursor of Sacha Baron Cohen, without the shame factor or characters.
posted by vickyverky at 11:27 AM on July 8, 2009

Included the car salesman and nickel&dimed pieces in my post, but thanks, I really enjoyed them, as well as Fast Times, Louis Theroux, and Black Like Me. Thank you, everyone. These are all great suggestions.
posted by heather-b at 11:34 AM on July 8, 2009

Anything by Jonathan Kozol.
posted by oceano at 12:10 PM on July 8, 2009

Self-Made Man: journalist Norah Vincent's life as a man.

The Boiler Room and Other Telephone Sales Scams: "participant-observer" Robert J. Stevenson's study of telesales culture.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:55 PM on July 8, 2009

Shining Through by Susan Isaacs. Okay, so it's fictional and takes place during WWII, but it's a Jew among Nazi's.
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:21 PM on July 8, 2009

The American Way of Death (A classic. Jessica Mitford takes on the funeral industry.)

Coming of Age in New Jersey (The undergraduate-years equivalent of Fast Times at Ridgemont High.)
posted by tangerine at 5:12 PM on July 8, 2009

Haven't read Among the Thugs, but I think that Buford's other book, Heat should count, too. Though not quite undercover, definitely an outsider.
posted by BleachBypass at 5:23 PM on July 8, 2009

You know, Jonathan Kozol, John McPhee, and Tracy Kidder are not good examples of what the poster is asking for. They have nothing to do with going under cover, and mostly aren't even about submersion journalism. Buford's books come closer, but don't really have to do with going undercover.
posted by OmieWise at 4:38 AM on July 9, 2009

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