Anonymity in Behavioural Research: Not Being Unnamed, but Being Unknown

16 Pages Posted: 12 Jul 2007

See all articles by Jacquelyn Burkell

Jacquelyn Burkell

Faculty of Information and Media Studies


Empirical research in the social sciences should help answer a crucial question: how does anonymity influence behaviour? A quick perusal of the literature, however, reveals that the answer provided by this research is far from simple. According to the empirical literature, "anonymity" has broad, varied, and inconsistent behavioural effects. A deeper reading reveals that the complexity of behavioural effects is matched by the complexity and variety in the empirical definitions of "anonymity." Analysis of empirical manipulations designed to operationalize the concept reveal that they reflect three distinct concepts: 1) identity protection (withholding of name or other unique identifiers); 2) visual anonymity (being unseen by communication partners); and 3) action anonymity (where the content and even existence of actions are unavailable to others). The first of these manipulations closely matches the traditional definition of anonymity, while the second and third relate more to being known (visually or by one's actions) than to being identified. Thus, in the context of behavioural research, anonymity is defined in two intertwined ways: as lacking unique identifiers and as being hidden from public scrutiny.

Keywords: Anonymity, concept, empirical research, communication

Suggested Citation

Burkell, Jacquelyn, Anonymity in Behavioural Research: Not Being Unnamed, but Being Unknown. University of Ottawa Law & Technology Journal, Vol. 3, No. 1, 2006. Available at SSRN:

Jacquelyn Burkell (Contact Author)

Faculty of Information and Media Studies ( email )

FIMS and Nursing Building, Rm. 2050
London, Ontario N6A 5B9
5q9-661-2111 ext 88506 (Phone)

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