Research and Study skills resources & training

The ethics of “researching friends”

 

Conducting research among friends, which is a different issue to establishing friendships with the participants (another widely discussed and described topic), has been addressed extensively in theoretical literature in the field of education (e.g. Ellis, 2007; Humphrey, 2007; Taylor, 2011; Tillmann-Healy, 2003), mainly with regard to the ethical issues arising and the ways to manage them. It has also been adopted as a strategy in empirical, mainly ethnographic, studies in various fields, including education. On one hand, among the most problematic issues linked with using “friendship as a method” are the feeling of confusion, due to the unconventional relationship between the researcher and the participants, the feeling of ‘betrayal’ when sharing (through published work) the personal stories of people the researcher knows, the issue of the previous knowledge shared by the researcher and the participants and the “possibility of reducing friends to little more than paper stereotypes, objectifying them in our writing so that their individuality is stripped away” (Brewis, 2014: 850). On the other hand, the advantages are believed to include establishing rapport and a high level of trust more easily and effectively, a deeper level of understanding between the researcher and the participants, due to the shared knowledge, and the participants’ willingness to share their honest personal experiences and reflections with a person they know (Brewis, 2014; Hodkinson, 2005).

I adopted this approach in my study of Polish migrants’ “language identity”. I believed that, despite the various risks involved in researching friends, it was a particularly valuable strategy for the purpose of that study, which relied on, and emphasised the importance of, detailed personal accounts of the participants. This method enabled me to establish a good rapport and high level of trust quickly during the initial interviews and to retain this throughout the study. The interviews, themselves, took place in locations familiar to both me and my interviewees, which was another major advantage in terms of the overall interview experience. Several of them were conducted over lunch or dinner, some at a barbecue (!), and all of them felt very natural. My “participants” admitted on several occasions that they enjoyed participating in the study and sharing their experiences. They readily shared their detailed personal stories, as well as occasional controversial opinions that could potentially show them in a bad light. They did not appear stressed and used informal language, and the general impression was that they appreciated the opportunity to share their insights.

Although there is no way of knowing for certain, I do believe that, had it not been for this status as the participants’ friend, I would not have gained access to these stories. Of course, whether your friends or acquaintances are suitable for your study will ultimately depend on what kind of study you are planning and what your topic is. There are certainly topics which you would rather discuss with a stranger than with a friend of yours but, similarly, there are things which you would not share with anyone but a person you know.

 

Literature on researching friends:

Brewis, J. (2014). The ethics of researching friends: On convenience sampling in qualitative management and organization studies. British Journal of Management, 25, 849-862.

Ellis, C. (2007). Telling secrets, revealing lives: relational ethics in research with intimate others. Qualitative Inquiry, 13, 3–29.

Hodkinson, P. (2005). “Insider Research” in the study of youth cultures. Journal of Youth Studies, 8 (2), 131–149.

Humphrey, C. (2007). Insider–outsider: Activating the hyphen. Action Research, 5, 11–26.

Taylor, J. (2011). The intimate insider: negotiating the ethics of friendship when doing insider research. Qualitative Research, 11, 3–22.

Tillmann-Healy, L. M. (2003). Friendship as method. Qualitative Inquiry, 9, 729–749.

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