This week’s guest blog post on interviewing friends was co-authored by Sarah Stice, Jennifer Johnston, and Areeb Gul, who are graduate students at the University of Georgia.
When it comes to qualitative interviewing, there has always been a focus on the relationship between the interviewer and the interviewee in terms of how to build rapport and get the best stories and data out of your participants. But what are the ethics when you as a researcher already know your participants, either as a family member, a friend, a colleague, or just an acquaintance? Many researchers use network sampling in order to gather participants for their study, so our team began with the research question, What are the ethics of interviewing people you know?
As we began reviewing the literature, we found ourselves thinking about the ways researchers gather data by interacting with people to understand people. Specifically, ethnographers will look closely at a community and culture, conducting interviews by chatting informally with participants in the study then by scheduling semi-structured interviews at a set time and place. Our literature review revealed that quite a few researchers have taken the time to reflect on the ethics of the relationships that they built with their participants over the course of their studies.
Carolyn Ellis (2007), a famous ethnographer who has shared and reflected on her early mistakes, conducted a very large study of two communities on Chesapeake Bay in the 1980s. She lived within those communities, befriended locals, and lived their lifestyle for a number of years. She then published her dissertation and a book about the residents. She didn’t believe the book would make it back to her participants because most of them couldn’t read. However, word did get back to her participants. They read what she had written about them, and they were not happy. She was devastated by the friendships that were broken because of her study, and has written and taught about the ethics of friendship in research since then.
One of Ellis’s graduate students, Tillman-Healy (2003), went on to coin the phrase “friendship as method,” in which the ethics of friendship take precedence over the ethics of research. She argued that instead of relying on IRB approval to pre-determine the ethical bounds of a study, the researcher must continually assess the ethical implications of the friendships built over the course of the study. Friendships are bound to grow as researchers and participants spend time together and get to know one another. The researcher honors and respects those friendships by gaining consent throughout the study, checking whether information is on the record or off the record, continuing to be a friend after the study has ended, and prioritizing reciprocity. Friendship as method might even require setting aside the research project to help a friend or keep a secret.
Building on Tillman-Healy’s concept of research as method, Owton shared her confessional tales of how her methods and methodology shifted because of her friendships in the study (Owton & Allen-Collinson, 2013). Over the course of her study, she learned to let go when participants no longer wanted to participate, respond to the power struggles that happen in interviews, draw boundaries for herself, deal with her own emotions in response to sensitive topics, and refer participants to a professional therapist as needed.
In addition to ethnographic approaches, feminist theory tackles the ethics of interviewing friends. One of the first feminist scholars to write about interviewing, Ann Oakley (1981; 2016), advocated for non-exploitive research relationships, which she claimed is a distinctly feminist approach to interviewing. Pushing back against the traditional, masculine approach to interviewing that puts the researcher in a position of power that exploits the research participant to gather data and get results, Oakley (1981) originally argued that interviews should be more considerate of participants. Later, realizing that the power dynamic will never be equal, she presented the “gift relationship,” in which the researcher recognizes her dependence on her participants’ contributions (Oakley, 2016).
Other researchers have explored the ethical implications of befriending their participants as well (Wong, 1998; Bhattacharya, 2007; Blichfeldt & Heldbjerg, 2007; Campbell, 2021). Wong (1998) troubled the lack of reciprocity when participants divulge secrets while the researcher gets to maintain privacy. Bhattacharya (2007) found her relationship with her research participant growing too close when they moved in together and shared a sororal relationship, so she highlighted the importance of continually requesting consent. Blichfeldt and Heldbjerg (2007) wrote about the implications of social constructivism when interviewing friends and acquaintances, dispelling the myth of objectivity and emphasizing the need to build trust and rapport. Most recently, Campbell (2021) found his plan to create objectivity foiled by the necessity to conduct interviews over video chat, which permitted him an intimate glimpse into the homes, families, and lives of his participants that he had not anticipated.
These researchers have certainly contributed the methodological implications of building friendships with participants over the course of the study, but our research team is still interested to find out, What are the ethical implications of choosing participants from your existing network of friends, family, and colleagues? For example, what is the power dynamic when you ask a friend or colleague to allow you to interview them? How is the interview different when you are already friends with your participant? What happens when your study ends and you still interact with your former participants on a daily basis? What is the responsibility of the researcher in divulging or hiding this information in their research report? Our next step is to expand our literature review to see if we can answer these questions.
Sarah Stice is a secondary English teacher working on her Ph.D. in English Education in the Language and Literacy Education department of the Mary Frances Early College of Education at UGA. Her research interests broaden daily but are currently focused on the history of literacy education and the ways various stakeholders describe the purpose of literacy education.
Jennifer Johnston is a Learning Design and Technology Ph.D. student at the University of Georgia. Her research interest is rooted at the junction of where instructional design meets project management. She is an entrepreneur at heart. She thrives in environments where the scope is not well defined, and she is given executive freedom to be creative with her design decisions. She is addicted to learning and growing. She is described by her coworkers as kind, generous, humorous, organized, and talkative. She views her skillset of communication as her greatest asset. She is committed to life-long continuous improvement for her research, writing, instructing, communication skills, and the communities around her.
Areeb Gul is a Masters student in the Merchandising, Textiles and Interiors program at the University of Georgia. Areeb was born in Pakistan and completed her undergraduate in Fashion and Design from Iqra University, Islamabad. She also taught Fashion Design courses including Pattern Making and Draping from 2019-2020 at Iqra University. After this she moved to Athens, Georgia in January 2021 to pursue her graduate degree at the University of Georgia where here research interests focus on the experiences of Muslim women that wear the hijab.
Bhattacharya, K. (2007). Consenting to the consent form: What are the fixed and fluid understandings between the researcher and the researched? Qualitative inquiry, 13(8), 1095-1115.
Blichfeldt, B. S., & Heldbjerg, G. (2007). Why not? The interviewing of friends and acquaintances. Aalborg University.
Campbell, L. R. (2021). Doctoral research amidst the Covid-19 pandemic: Researcher reflections on practice, relationships, and unexpected intimacy. Qualitative Social Work, 20(1–2), 570–578. https://doi.org/10.1177/1473325020981090
Ellis, C. (2007). Telling secrets, revealing lives: Relational ethics in research with intimate others. Qualitative Inquiry, 13(1), 3–29. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077800406294947
Oakley, A. (1981). Interviewing women: A contradiction in terms. In H. Roberts (Ed.), Doing Feminist Research (pp. 30–61). Routledge.
Oakley, A. (2016). Interviewing Women Again: Power, Time and the Gift. Sociology.
Owton, H., & Allen-Sollinson, J. (2013). Close but not too close: Friendship as method(ology) in ethnographic research encounters. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781412963909.n241
Tillmann-Healy, L. M. (2003). Friendship as Method. Qualitative Inquiry, 9(5), 729–749. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077800403254894
Wong, L. M. (1998). The ethics of rapport: institutional safeguards, resistance, and betrayal. Qualitative Inquiry, 4(2).