Notes from the Field: “Researchers are the worst!”: Access, Trust and Deadends

By Justa Hopma

Originally published in July 2014

Note from the Editor: The following blog post is based on the experience of conducting field research by Joint International Politics + Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) PhD Candidate, Justa Hopma. Her extended profile can be found here.

This post is based upon a section in my 2nd year presentation that covered some aspects of the fieldwork process. It is intended for students considering going abroad for research and those interested in the fieldwork process more generally. I will briefly consider some practical aspects and pause at an example of a challenging experience in my own fieldwork. There is a lot to say about preparing and doing fieldwork, but many pieces of information are often specific to individual projects and countries. Nevertheless, I would like to share – in a straightforward and informal style – some of my experiences during a six-month fieldwork period in Amman, Jordan. The ideas presented here revolve around the themes ‘Access and language’, ‘Trust’, and ‘Dead ends’.

One key challenge in doing fieldwork is to gain access to the people whom you would like to connect with. It is a good idea to activate your network as early as you can. Do any of your professors, friends, or family have contacts in your fieldwork location? Could you start making new links by contacting relevant institutions? Don’t hesitate to pick up the phone either. It is more direct and in some business or research cultures emails are simply ignored if they don’t come from a known recipient. In general, gaining access is often easier through existing contacts and in some cultures this is more important than in others. At the same time, aim high. You never know; nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Being able to command the local language is of tremendous help when trying to gain access to certain organisations and fields. Not only does it demonstrate that you are serious about your research project, it also shows a certain degree of respect for cultures and societies other than your own. Aside from such broader motivations, even limited familiarity with the language will help you on a practical level. For example, while you might not be able to conduct your formal interviews in the desired language, being able to obtain basic information from a secretary will make all the difference. When is the manager going to be in? What time should you call back? Where to send that email with information about your project? Elementary language skills will give you practical advantages that are likely to pay off in terms of being able to secure appointments. It also helps to build trust, which is the second theme of this blog post.

Any chapter on qualitative research methods and interviewing usually highlights the building of ‘trust’ as being crucial. Trust is seen as the basic requirement for interviews to take place and ‘written or verbal consent’ is considered evidence of having obtained it. In this way it would seem that an interviewee decides whether or not they trust you – to at least a certain degree – prior to actually speaking to you and getting to know you. During my fieldwork, the issue with trust wasn’t so much related to being able to build up rapport with people during an interview or to elicit more information as you go along. The problem was that the organisation I had really wanted to work did not trust me for the very person whom I was; a young white female researcher from northern Europe. And this, I could not change. One of my other interviewees told me: ‘The root of many of the problems [in this region], is what the researchers of Europe did. So it is normal to look at you with a weird eye’ (Interview, Amman, 18 February 2014). While this was upsetting and quite frustrating on a personal level, I understood the bigger picture in which my research was taking place. My interviewee’s observation was not surprising at all given the long and ongoing history of one-directional research, that is, academic work in which those who are ‘intervened upon’ do not have a say in the details of such interventions.

In the end, I was not able to convince the relevant people of the – what I considered more ‘critical’ – outlook of my work and I had to accept that I would not be able to conduct the interview. I still had access to the organisation’s public narrative though, as well as a number of recorded speeches. Perhaps not ‘ideal’ in the world of the researcher, but in the end fieldwork is and should be a shared experience that you cannot control fully. With time, I have come to find the reasons for having been rejected this particular interview as more instructive and illuminating than any interview script worked out in Aberystwyth could have been.

The last issue that is worth unpacking here briefly, concerns decision-making while in the field. For example, is a certain line of enquiry really fruitful or are you just re-discovering what you already knew? Is it impossible to get hold of anyone in such-and-such department and you find you are just wasting your time? How do you decide what is a dead-end and what is worth pursuing despite difficulties and delays?

Ideally you will have at least a roughly circumscribed idea of which lines of enquiry are essential to your research and which ones are enriching, but not strictly necessary. In this way, you can let your decision depend on whether your interviewee or line of enquiry falls within your priority area. For example, my focus was on food corporations and movements that contest the food system. It was my priority to speak to anyone working in these exact fields. Others would be secondary. Food producers, charity workers, policy makers, ministers, these would be less important. This did not mean that I did not interview these groups of people. I did, but I would only do so when I couldn’t arrange interviews with informants in my key groups.

Deciding on any ‘priority areas’, can be a difficult decision to make as a whole range of sources could be useful to some degree. Unfortunately, time and resources in the field are extremely limited for most of us. For this reason it is necessary to make some firm decisions prior to leaving, as these will underpin the manageability of your research project. This takes careful consideration and once you made your decisions, it can be difficult to stick to them. To me, this is the most challenging aspect of doing field research: the constant negotiation between keeping your long-term goals in mind while remaining flexible and attuned to the need to perhaps adapt and change course.

At the same time, this tension contributes to the more exciting and intellectually stimulating aspects of research: surprises and new discoveries. Through fieldwork you come to know your research topic in unexpected ways and at a deeper level than you could have ever dreamed up when deciding on your research questions back on campus …