Research ethics: when friends become work

Social scientist mulls the perks and pitfalls of using personal networks in research

Source: Alamy

Too close?: Using acquaintances in research requires clear thought

A new paper explores the ethical challenges for academics in using friends as subjects of their research.

Jo Brewis, professor of organisation and consumption at the University of Leicester, works in the field of critical management studies and has often explored “how careers intersect with and are influenced by other aspects of people’s lives: intimate relationships, geographical location, parenthood and so on”. Because this touches on sensitive issues of the body and sexuality, she has “never been a ‘cold caller’ ” in her research but has relied on existing personal networks.

Her paper on “The ethics of researching friends: on convenience sampling in qualitative management and organization studies”, published online in the British Journal of Management, focuses on “a project where I gathered data from six friends on their experiences of and attitudes towards sexual relationships, motherhood and life-work ‘balance’”.

The advantages are fairly obvious. “Access negotiations” presented few difficulties, writes Professor Brewis, “because rapport and empathy already existed between us”. Sample selection was also made easier, since “the themes I was exploring were ones we chatted about in the normal course of our friendships”. Though she made a firm decision never to draw on any prior information she happened to have about her friends in writing up her research, “the frankness and depth of the narratives I collected from my six friend-respondents are, I feel, in large part a product of our friendships”.

Yet Professor Brewis’ paper also reports several ethical concerns. She experienced a “sense of betrayal and disloyalty” when reporting data from a friend “about the breakdown of her relationship”. Was there not a danger of “becoming excited by ‘juicy’ data at the expense of the participants’ feelings” or “exposing [them] to readers’ ‘voyeuristic gaze’ ”?

If “over-exposure” was one possibility, Professor Brewis recalled that she had also sometimes done the opposite, “silencing” her friends’ voices by incorporating only fragments of their stories within broader “academic commentary”.

While anthropologists and others have written about the complexities of researching friends, says Professor Brewis, they had often focused on the friendships that develop during research – and those working in her field of management and organisation studies had largely neglected the question altogether.

“I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t use this sort of ‘convenience sample’,” she explains, “but if we are not explicit about these things, they can get sidelined and not thought through in the process of research.”

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