Critical associations

Critical Associations was one of the research projects in Realities, part of the National Centre for Research Methods, funded by the ESRC.

About the project

This project explored personal associations that are 'critical' in people's lives. Relationships or associations with people such as friends, acquaintances, colleagues and neighbours can play a significant part in our lives, but sociological research has tended to focus only on beneficial aspects of non-family relationships.

We wanted to try and research some of the less positive aspects of these relationships, as well as the positive and supportive ones.

Research methods

Critical Associations used a 'Facet Methodology' approach. We chose a series of small, linked 'facets' which could each explore different aspects of critical associations.


  • Mass Observation Directive on the ‘ups and downs’ of friendships - mass-observation collects the thoughts of a panel of writers through regular invitations to write about certain topics (known as directives). We received over 200 privately written responses to our directive about the ups and downs of friendship, including lots of stories about ‘falling out’ with friends.
  • Era memory workshops on ‘coming out’ and ‘political associations’ - era memory workshops are group sessions involving various methods of elicitation to explore people’s memories of their associations at a particular moment or surrounding a particular theme. For example, our ‘coming out’ workshop explored associations formed around the process of coming out as lesbian or gay.
  • Exploration of associations ‘in place’ using interviews, archived ‘memories’ and ethnography - this facet uses interviews, ethnography and secondary analysis of archived written and photographic memories to trace personal associations amongst people who were moved out of Manchester city centre to an ‘overspill’ estate during a major slum clearance programme in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
  • Facebook ‘mini ethnography’ - this facet includes a small number of participant observation-based interviews investigating people’s Facebook use. Research interactions take place at the computer whilst participants are using Facebook. We were particularly interested in investigating participant’s responses to being ‘Facebooked’ by people they have lost touch with (such as school ‘friends').
  • Memories of critical ‘clubbing days’ using music and film elicitation - this facet use music and film elicitation to explore the memories of people who were regulars at Manchester’s Hacienda nightclub during the 1980s and 1990s. Particular attention was given to investigating what happened to associations formed during this period among people who have since stopped going clubbing and are no longer part of the ‘scene’.

Conclusions/insights gained

Using a facet methodology approach allowed us to research a complex blend of tangible and intangible aspects of critical associations that it can be difficult to grasp using conventional research methods.

Thinking of the relationships in the study as "critical associations" allowed us to focus on relationships that are "critical" in the sense that they are important. As well in the sense that they are not always experienced as positive or life-affirming. The notion of "associations" enabled us to focus on a range of relationships - including those with friends, family members, colleagues, acquaintances, even enemies  - and to account for "suffusions" or overlaps between these categories of relationship.

Counter to sociologically dominant ideas of "pure" relationships and individualisation, friendships and other critical associations can be difficult to extract oneself from even when they are no longer wholly positive relationships.

Critical associations can become "biographical anchors" (Spencer and Pahl, 2006: 56), linked to a particular time/era in somebody's personal life history.

Selected publications and outputs

Smart, C, Davies, K, Heaphy, B and Mason, J (2012) 'Difficult friendships and ontological insecurity' The Sociological Review 60(1): 91-109 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-954X.2011.02048.x

Davies, K (2011) 'Friendship and Personal Life'. In: V May (ed) Sociology of Personal Life. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.

Davies, K and Heaphy, B (2011) 'Interactions that Matter: Researching Critical Associations'. Methodological Innovations Online, 6 (3) 5-16.

Mason, J (2011) 'Facet Methodology: the Case for an Inventive Research Orientation'. Methodological Innovations Online, 6 (3) 75-92

Presentation on 'Facet Methodology' by Jennifer Mason, given at Realities Interdisciplinary Dialogues workshop on 4 April 2011.

In the news...

The ups and downs of friendship

The following stories are based on the data generated from the Mass Observation Project directive on the ups and downs of friendship:

These stories are based on a press release from the conference presentation below (click on the title for the presentation slides):

Research team

Katherine Davies, Nicola Allett, Brian Heaphy, Jennifer Mason, Carol Smart.


1 October 2008 to 30 September 2011


We are grateful for the support of the Economic and Social Research Council in funding this project. (RES-576-25-0022)