Professor Jo Brewis, Deputy Head of the School, discusses the under-acknowledged practical and interpersonal consequences of the methodological decisions researchers make
The critical tradition of management scholarship with which Leicester’s name has become synonymous has been applied to a wide variety of organisational settings, it has employed numerous research methods and it has drawn on a multitude of concepts. Such under-disciplined eclecticism hasn’t been without its detractors, of course. Even sympathetic commentators now highlight the tensions along the terrain while concerns with the pitfalls of peer review and the tradition’s political (in-)efficacy abound. Whatever we might say about the state of Critical Management Studies, the Criticism of Critical Management Studies seems to be doing a roaring trade. After more than twenty years as a management researcher, I find myself increasingly preoccupied with and intrigued by these internal debates. I am even more preoccupied with and intrigued by what they leave unsaid.
Admittedly, my own sense of what merits preoccupation and intrigue might struggle to pass the ‘so what?’ test I regularly assign to my students. Nevertheless, I am regularly struck by the fact that academics from other disciplines have seen fit to comment on something which (critical) management studies has pretty much ignored – within empirical research we often recruit respondents from our own personal and professional networks. We do this largely for reasons of convenience since it neatly negotiates the problem of access while simultaneously enhancing the likelihood of generating rich and meaningful data. This seemingly innocent decision nevertheless allows methodological and ethical complexities to enter by the back door. I’ll mention just six of these here.
First, there is the double-edged sword of openness I have experienced interviewing my female friends while self-presenting as an academic. Because I know the women involved so well, it is always very difficult for me to judge whether they would have been so honest with someone they didn’t know. This difficulty is complicated by the fact that my research tends to focus on somewhat ticklish subjects, such as women’s experiences of their bodies or their sexual relationships.
Second, unlike the conventional research relationship, everyone involved in friend-based research maintains contact once the project has terminated: this surely affects how we represent our respondents. When I have been interviewed by colleagues for their own work, for example, reading through what I said has always been a disconcerting experience. I am not alone here. Academic publications might not have a very large readership but their permanency ensures personal details are recorded for others to see. What is more, given the volume of data routinely gathered within qualitative research, respondents might take issue with how their views were represented and/or with the proportionate extent to which these were used in the final piece.
Third, and related to the above, is the inevitability of caricaturing – perhaps even to the point of misrepresentation – the views and experiences of our respondents when we fillet they have told us down to the requisite 8,000 or so words. Our need to objectify these people as archetypal Mothers or Daughters or Partners or HRM Professionals or Precarious Workers or Whatevers might well explain this act of reduction but it hardly excuses it. Having read back through the various pieces I have written on the basis of research with friends, I sometimes barely recognize the complicated individuals I had so non-complicatedly de-individualised.
Fourth, we always know more about our friends, colleagues and contacts than any data collection method could ever hope to unearth, purely because we know them. It is imperative then that, especially in projects where the data collection ‘episodes’ are not firmly bracketed off from the ‘rest of’ our relationships, we take great care not to inadvertently include information in our publications that did not emerge during ‘formal’ data gathering.
Fifth, and again because of our extant connections with them, our familiars may well trust us enough so that any request for them to check our draft analyses or even review our transcripts and make any amendments or excisions they see fit is treated somewhat lightly and the texts are not read carefully, or even at all.
Finally, researching people that we know makes it more likely that we will be ‘studying across’ – gathering data from those who are similar to us – which also increases the possibility that what we produce as a result says much more about us than it does about them. And, of course, it is much more difficult to include data or elements of analysis which we feel might show these familiars in a poor light in our publications.
To affirm we should be taking these issues more seriously, of course, is not the same as outlining how we should do so. When it comes to protocol recommendation, I run the risk of resorting to cliché in insisting there are no easy answers. This, however, is indeed the case. Arthur Frank’s chapter in an edited collection entitled The Ethics of Life Writing describes the predicament of the honest researcher as follows:
We do not act on principles that hold for all times. We act as best as we can at a particular time, guided by certain stories that speak to that time, and other people’s dialogical affirmation that we have chosen the right stories … The best any of us can do is to tell one another our stories of how we have made choices and set priorities. By remaining open to other people’s responses … we engage in the unfinalized dialogue of seeking the good.
None of which is to say that there is anything wrong in getting by with a little help from our friends. Far from it! My point is that we employ this kind of convenience sample much more frequently than we acknowledge. What is more, we often advise our students to do precisely the same. Critical Management scholars would be better off facing up to the complexities of this predicament, rather than ignoring them.