I get by with a little help from my friends…

Posted by er134 at Sep 02, 2014 10:35 AM |
Worry over ‘voyeuristic gaze’ in using personal networks for data collection

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 2 September 2014

A new study from the University of Leicester highlights how it can be problematic if researchers use friends in order to provide data for their study.

Professor Jo Brewis, of the School of Management, argues using friends for research has advantages especially if the research touches on sensitive subjects such as sexuality – but could be viewed as problematic for exposing friends to – amongst other concerns - a ‘voyeuristic gaze’.

Speaking about the paper, published online in the British Journal of Management in mid-August, Professor Brewis, who is professor of organisation and consumption at the University of Leicester, says using personal networks means she does not have to ‘cold call’ people for her research on these sensitive subjects.

In the paper itself, she suggests that:  “Access negotiations [for such research] were relatively easy because rapport and empathy already existed between us. Moreover, my sampling approach was based on the fact that the themes I was exploring were ones we chatted about in the normal course of our friendships.

“The frankness and depth of the narratives I collected from my friend-respondents are, I feel, in large part a product of our friendships.”

But when it came to writing up her research, Professor Brewis said she found aspects of one chapter in particular ‘very difficult to write.’

For example, she suggests she felt what Fraser and Puwar refer to as ‘a sense of betrayal and disloyalty’ when using data about the breakdown of a relationship of a friend.  She also cites McConnell-Henry et al. when commenting on her fears that she had become  “excited by ‘juicy’ data at the expense of the participants’ feelings”, and goes on to write about the risk of “exposing [them] to readers’ ‘voyeuristic gaze’ ”.

Even though all data were gathered according to the “standard ethical protocols of informed consent, anonymity, confidentiality and respondent validation”, Professor Brewis also wondered if other issues arose:  “All [these] women were aware of how I planned to use the material they shared with me … But I cannot gauge whether [they] forgot our exchanges were conducted primarily in the name of research, and instead confided things to me as they would in our friendships”.

On the other hand, another concern raised by Professor Brewis about using friends for research is the danger of ‘silencing’ her friends’ voices by only using small segments of what they disclosed.

Professor Brewis also assessed other risks of using friends for research: “Have I reduced these six women to two-dimensional characters on the page, stripping away their individuality and making them ‘archetypal’ divorcees, stepmothers, mothers manqué, expectant mothers, ‘working mothers’, single women and so on?

Professor Brewis says raising the issues is important:  “I still feel researching our friends represents particularly delicate ethical ground. I think some of this ground has to be navigated in any qualitative research project, and I certainly do not believe we should avoid research with friends. But to me this kind of convenience sampling has a number of important ethical implications.”


Note to newsdesk:

To interview Professor Brewis, email  jpb18@leicester.ac.uk

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