You might open the door – but what will it mean to step through it?

There is no simple answer to the ethical dilemmas, political manoeuvrings and relationship challenges involved in gaining access to organisations for research, says Ann Cunliffe

October 13, 2016
Locked door

Gaining access to organisations to carry out research is often a lengthy and challenging process that can be waylaid by internal politics. But the problems and ethical dilemmas involved in gaining access are subjects only rarely addressed in research accounts. Neither do we talk openly about the fact that getting access, and more importantly, maintaining it, may even involve a little deception. If we persist in the fiction that access is purely a door that opens, through which we, as neutral, objective scientists, calmly walk and then conduct the research exactly as planned, we’re doing our own research, skills and experience a disservice. We’re also – perhaps more importantly – leaving those new to the field with a naive view of what they might encounter and few resources to help them handle it.

Organisations are complex – that’s why we want to research their culture, social interactions and management processes. Gaining access means building a relationship based on a research bargain: essentially promises and expectations held and tacitly agreed between researchers and hosts as to what will happen before, during and after the research takes place.

How close our research relationships become is down to us. Less involvement keeps things simpler, but risks access being limited to what takes place “front stage”. If we want to see where the real work happens, usually “backstage”, then we need to gain trust, and that means building deeper relationships with members of the organisation.

Long gone are the potentially dangerous days of covert access – such as the fieldworkers who had themselves admitted as patients to a US psychiatric hospital in the 1970s to carry out research and then struggled to get themselves discharged. Today, informed consent means everything has to be above board – although of course, this is rarely as simple as it sounds. How frank you are about your intentions can affect what you are told or allowed to witness. Most researchers “manage the truth”, much as we might in our daily lives: managing the impression we make on others by looking the part and highlighting only certain aspects of ourselves; choosing strategically how much of our hand we want to reveal and couching the aims of our research in terms that will be acceptable; juggling clashes of personal values; portraying sympathy, friendliness or interest to encourage confidences; and pretending to be a “fan”, when we are really a “spy”. And those we are researching may similarly be managing the truth; we all have our own self-interest at heart: our status, promotion, relationships, publications and careers.

We also need to be aware that maintaining access can present us with ethical dilemmas and even put us at personal risk. My colleague, Rafael Alcadipani, associate professor in management at Escola de Administraçâo da Fundaçâo Getulio Vargas, Brazil, found this out for himself when conducting research into a Latin American police force. Although he was initially granted formal access through official channels – after an interview with high-ranked officials – any attempt by him to visit the field was blocked and the research didn’t start. Only by turning up regularly at demonstrations and introducing himself to the officer in charge, was he finally, a year later, given admittance. He was accepted as a “friend” of the police – a view of himself that Rafael acceded to. In his favour was the perception by the force that business school academics were less “dangerous” than sociologists! As a “trusted friend”, he was allowed to see backstage, beyond the projected image of a united, organised and professional body to the realities of tensions, dissent and personal fragilities associated with the job.

Backstage access meant that Rafael found himself encountering controversial and potentially personally threatening situations, and party to information that clashed with his own personal values. He was also asked to comment on reports of police violence in the media, which he had to balance with remaining a trusted friend of the force.

The nature of our relationship with our research participants is crucial to successful research – and such relationships are complex. In a recent paper, Rafael and myself argued that they may be instrumental, based purely on the researcher’s goals; transactional, based on an agreed return to the organisation; or relational, based on mutual accountability, trust and transparency.

There’s no simple answer to the ethical dilemmas, political manoeuvrings and relationship challenges involved in gaining access – how best to handle it will depend on many factors and on the context of our research. But it’s time we stopped relegating any discussion of this to the appendices and brief acknowledgements in our papers. Being open about the politics and ethics of access can not only offer insights into organisational life – thereby adding to the quality of our research accounts – it will help experienced, new and early career researchers deal better with these problems in the future.

Ann Cunliffe is 50th anniversary chair and professor of organisation studies at the University of Bradford. This article is based on: Cunliffe, A. L. & Alcadipani, R. (2016) “The politics of access in fieldwork: infiltration, backstage dramas and deflection. Organizational Research Methods. doi:10.1177/1094428116639134

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