Ethics and on-line research: problematizing the public and private

Professional Education and Partnerships (PEP) Seminar

Date: Monday 3rd February 2020

Time: 15.30-17.00

Location: Middlesex University, room C113

Organiser: Dr Lee Jerome (

Dr Jai Mackenzie, School of English, University of Nottingham

Kevin McDonald, Professor & Head of Department of Criminology and Sociology, Middlesex University

This seminar will feature two colleagues reflecting on their experiences of conducting on-line research in contrasting projects (radicalization, Mumsnet and LGBT parenting). The discussion will focus on the ethical dimension to such work, with a particular focus on using pre-existing data from social media and on-line forums. This event is being organised with the Education Ethics Sub-Committee and colleagues from all departments / faculties are welcome.

Paper 1: Researching online parenting communities: A context-sensitive approach

Jai Mackenzie, University of Nottingham

In recent years, researchers across disciplines have discovered stimulating opportunities to study human interaction, behaviour and sociability online. But with these opportunities come concerns for the human subjects who produce online ‘data’, most notably, their rights to privacy, autonomy and freedom from harm. In this presentation, I outline some key ethical challenges and considerations for researchers of digital contexts and communication, using two case studies from my qualitative explorations of online parenting communities as examples. The first of these studies focuses on digital interactions collected from the popular Mumsnet Talk parenting discussion forum, whilst the second draws on both interview and digital data from ongoing engagement with diverse and marginalised families who regularly use digital media. I explain some of the challenges around research design and ethical decision-making in relation to each of these studies, before outlining my approach to considerations of the public/private dichotomy, participants’ autonomy, and sensitivity to the norms of shifting and multiple digital research contexts. Ultimately, I suggest that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to ethical internet research, but that a case-based, context-sensitive approach is necessary if researchers are to make sensitive, informed ethical judgements that minimise the risk of harm to data subjects and participants.

Paper 2: Researching Radicalization

Kevin McDonald, Middlesex University

In this paper Kevin will discuss the digital ethnography he undertook for his 2018 book ‘Radicalization’. During 2013-15 there was a vast amount of jihadist material on different social media platforms. Whilst much of this has since been removed there remains a significant digital footprint that allows us to capture radicalization as a lived experience. One example is provided by Aqsa Mahmood’s social media profile(s) which demonstrate how she constructed an experiential world structured around an opposition between purity and impurity, but where humour continues to play crucial role, both as a mechanism of inclusion (who is in the ‘fam’) and as a means to say what is unsayable. Such research is helpful for generating insights about radicalization as a process produced by active participants, not simply something done to people. But it also involves ethical questions around access and legality (as organisations and material can be so tightly controlled by different governments).

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