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When they read what we write: respondent identification

While reading a research report for the study where I was one of the respondents I realised that even while my quotes were identified with a nickname there would be quite some number of people who could figure out it was me if they get to read the whole thing…

This is something I has been struggling in my own research as well. Simple: when I report on interviews with bloggers shall I add a (nick)name to every quote/fact?

On one hand, it dramatically improves readability of the research results – readers could reconstruct what different characters were saying and how different aspects of their story connect to each other. On another hand, this is exactly something that compromises their privacy: sometimes you don’t need a name to recognise that the story told in the research report is associated with a specific person.

Sometimes you don’t need the whole story. In one of my interviews with Microsoft bloggers I brought in an opposing opinion of another respondent (“some people say so and so”) to get into a discussion on why differences were there. The respondent immediately identified the name of the person I tried to hide…

This could be just an exception, but I’m pretty sure that if I let quotes to be accompanied by nicknames (=allowing to trace that they belong to the same person) then many of the personalities behind them could be easily identified by their peers (and I’m not talking about the fact that I can’t quote anything from the respondents’ blogs – that gives them away immediately).

It doesn’t make a big issue when “the field” you study and “the academic audience” you write for are far apart, so the chances of someone from the field reading the results of the study is low. However, it’s not the case with my research – a weblog reveals personality and the blogosphere is interconnected enough, I choose to study lead users who often have an interest in the results and I actually find important reaching them – the chances that my respondents or people who can identify them read the results are pretty high.

And, while I’m strfuggling with my writing choices I have a book suggestion for those who feel like diving into these issues further: When They Read What We Write: The Politics of Ethnography. So far this was the best to put my own experiences and thinking into perspective. I will blog it one day (if I’m bad this will not happen before writing the related section of my dissertation 🙂

Related from another angle: Weblog research ethics – 1, 2 3

Archived version of this entry is available at http://blog.mathemagenic.com/2006/07/11.html#a1799; comments are here.

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