Ethics in Social Network Analysis

Interviewees should be open because they feel safe - not confused

When you do normal survey kind research, it’s easy to ensure the anonymity of your respondents, because you are not interested in their characteristics as Peter, Paul or Mary but just want to use them as representatives for a specific type of person in your population. Network data is fundamentally different in that as a researcher you can only make sense of the data if your respondents identify specific other actors by name. Borgatti and Molina have written a great paper about what that means in organizational research. In research that is just meant for publication the researcher can remove any individual names and other identifiers for the publication. But if you use network tools in a background where facilitating change is one of the goals, the data is so much more powerful if you know who is who. For example, if one person in the administration is a real bottleneck to the success of the project, the difference between knowing that “one person in the administration” is a bottleneck and “Peter Miller” is a bottleneck is huge – both for the ones who want change (e.g. the management) and for Peter Miller. In their paper, Borgatti and Molina propose to expand the standard consent form (which binds researcher and respondent) to include the organization’s management as well, committing them not to use the resulting data to evaluate individual performance.

One general ethical issue that I have seen come up with social network analysis is that most people don’t understand how the answers they give will be analysed, what they will be turned into. Some SNA researchers see this as positive, it makes their work easy because it minimizes strategic answering… Well, call me crazy, but I think my interview partners should have all the right in the world to answer strategically, if they want to. Sure, I would prefer if they trusted me and my research enough, to open up and tell me things how they are. But I don’t want to trick them into telling me stuff they wouldn’t have told me, if only they had known what I would do with it afterwards. And this is where one of the strengths of network mapping (as compared to survey style SNA) lies: My respondents see what they are doing while they give their answers. They can reflect on the complete picture and see if that’s what they actually wanted to say. We meet at the same level, instead of me trying to wiggle some information out of slightly confused research objects. I don’t even do any magic afterwards with the data (as you do when transforming survey answers into network diagrams). Even though that might be a good strategy for getting the next contract, doing magic that my clients can’t do… But I actually want them to walk away with the feeling: “That was great! I learned something! I could do this as well!” And if they really want to make me happy, they go on and analyse their next problem by drawing a network map.

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