Purpose ' The research technique of shadowing is the most in-depth type of systematic, direct observation in situ of behaviours within a particular organisational or social setting, and yet, it crucially lacks documentation and critical analysis. The origins of the under-documenting, coupled with the mutation of the scientific method of shadowing through its adoption by many industries as a means of on-the-job training, have led to a misunderstanding of shadowing as a scientific technique. This is problematic at several levels for academics deeply involved in qualitative methodology. The purpose of this paper is to address, in part, this gap in the literature. Design/methodology/approach ' By defining shadowing, considering the reasons why shadowing has had little critique from social science scholars and then exploring the problems of it as a research technique, particularly within the current context of ethics regimes, the authors wish to proactively help to avoid unintentional yet delicate fieldwork situations, in which misunderstanding may happen due to the lay use of 'shadowing' as a passive (non-obtrusive) observation. Findings ' The authors argue that the research practice of shadowing implies specific systematic techniques and extensive self-discipline by the researcher. It also caters for a need in data collection that oversteps traditional observation-and-interviewing techniques, by adding a new hermeneutical layer to the information gathered. It becomes an essential tool in the evaluation of public policy initiatives and programmes and in the understanding of not only the mechanics, but of the motivations behind actions and behaviours. Originality/value ' This paper addresses part of a gap in the literature and paves the way for more critical analysis of the dynamics that emerge during the shadowing of a research participant.