Access, trust and emergent fieldwork

Gaining research access to specific communities and contexts is rarely straightforward, and things don’t always go to plan. Just because a researcher identifies a need to study a particular social and/or cultural phenomenon, doesn’t necessarily mean that it can be researched. Here, Tim will begin by introducing researchers’ dilemmas of gaining access to (and the trust of) social groups as a key determinant of research success. He will then go on to discuss practical (yet often taken for granted) ways in which researchers can build trustworthiness and nurture lasting relationships with participants, which can enable research fieldwork to flourish – often extending studies beyond researchers’ original aims. Tim will illustrate the discussion with examples from his own research.

Activity: Film Focus 7, ‘Access, trust and emergent fieldwork’ – Tim Butcher

Watch the film and make your own notes in response to the following questions:

  • How would you talk to your research participants about yourself? How would you convey the authenticity and truthfulness of your intentions as a researcher?
  • How would you explain your research, so it is better understood by your research participants? Write a short statement.
  • What roles have you played within the communities or organisations you have previously researched? Do you think you could have played a more active role? If not, why?
  • What kinds of activities might not be appropriate (for you and others) in the research settings you have experienced? Why?
Download this video clip.Video player: 04-250627-28-access-trust-and-emergent-fieldwork.mp4
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I’m Tim Butcher. I work for The Open University in the UK.

In this film, we’ll be talking about access, trust and emergent fieldwork. It’s really important to understand how you enter the field and thus how you gain access and how you build trust within the community.

So those initial moments, those introductions, are really, really important. They set the tone, if you like, for the rest of the research. In my own PhD research, for example, in a factory in Bristol in the UK, I was introduced by an intermediary local manager who didn’t really know me but I’d been introduced to, who then introduced me to workers on the shop floor. And I would spend I spent the next twelve months working there alongside those workers.

And the things that I talked about in those initial stages were really trying to help them to understand my own warrantability. So how authentic, how truthful was I being about who I am, who I think I am, my relationship with them, and also what I wanted to achieve in terms of the research. And that really, as I say, set the scene.

So it’s really important to explain your research in appropriate ways, ways that other participants understand. That enables you to gain access and start to build a sense of trust. It’s also then important to listen, to listen to the ideas and feedback that you get from people as you talk through why you’re there, what it is you want to achieve, to understand what other participants want to achieve, to maybe get some instructions from them about specific things they might want you to look at, things that they don’t want you to be involved in, and so on, and also trying to understand how the research that as you envisage it might meet the needs of the broader community, how that might enable the community to share their stories more widely for whatever purpose.

And so as researchers, we often have a series of dilemmas as we access the field, as we try to gain access, as we start to try to build trust. We have to ask ourselves, how much do we already think we know about what’s going on in the fields? How much desk research have we done prior to going into the field? And was that really relevant?

Asking ourselves, how long should the study be, for example? How often you come and go from the community? For me in different projects, the studies have been at different lengths. I’ve spent different amounts of times in communities.

So these are important considerations for you as a researcher because, obviously, you need to interweave it with your own life as well beyond the research but also fit in with the lives of other participants. There might be times or things when it’s not appropriate for you to be around.

Other more specific things how much time to spend with particular participants. You might find that you collaborate very closely with some people more than others. But then asking yourself, how much time do you spend with them in particular as opposed to others?

But also, where do you spend that time with them? Do you have a conversation over coffee every morning, perhaps, or in other spaces in other ways? And just what’s going on in those exchanges?

So these are some of the dilemmas that you might ask yourself, OK, well, do I need to get anymore out of that? Should I be doing less of it? Is there something more I could be doing to enable that to flourish? Or should I be pulling back a little bit?

You might ask yourself what sorts of things you might get involved in. I myself in my study with the people of Papunya watching the football matches from the sidelines and wondering whether I should take my boots and strap them on and try and get a game myself. Should I be plating the game, and would I be any good? But with that then give me a greater sense of what it feels like to play the sport there, then, in that moment? Would it add anything to the research?

And what other things might you look out for? What other sort of roles might you play in the community? So when you’re working with other participants, are you just there as a researcher? Are there things that you could help out with, and should you? These are all things that we have to ask ourselves.

I know in my own research, for example, in the football project, so there’s a very real need beyond the research for funding for the sporting league. There’s always a need to develop that further. And so what role can I play as someone to share people’s stories, to share the photographs, to maybe raise awareness about the needs of the community? And that extends far beyond the research.

But that becomes a choice that I’ve made. It’s a choice that you need to make yourself about just how embedded do you become. How interwoven should you be? How long should you spend there? How much do you come and go? Several things to think about.

There are also things that we take for granted in everyday life that we take into the field with us as researchers, simple things like arranging meetings. So maybe back at the university, we have a regular schedule of meetings. Or we send someone a calendar invitation electronically, and they accept it. And then the meeting occurs. I often do that but might be five minutes late.

But in the field, things might not work out that way. There might be other things getting in the way, for example. I’ve had meetings that have been delayed by days and weeks even because of circumstances, things that occur that no one was expecting. And so I’ve often had to be quite patient.

Or we’ve convened meetings in places that we found weren’t necessarily ideal. But it was an opportunity to come together to talk about something. So petrol stations have been places where I’ve had meetings because I’m working in a place where there are huge distances between towns and communities. And so petrol stations actually became meeting points because it’s where you refuel between those very distant places.

Again, moving on to space, so the space of the petrol station in my experience, understanding where to meet, how to meet, what to do in those spaces, understanding the sorts of spaces you may or may not be welcome in. In my research as an organisational ethnographer, I rarely go into other people’s homes.

I tend to be researching or meeting people or hanging out with people even in spaces that are organised. So, for example, the organised sport. And there’ll be spaces, of course, that we’re not invited into. So we need to respect that. We need to know our place in the field and know the place of others and respect that too.

We need to ask ourselves things like, what is the truth? Are we being told the truth by participants? What are their truths, and what are our own? I spoke about this in a previous film.

We just take for granted some of these things in everyday life. The way I see the world might not necessarily be the way that other people see the world. And so, as researchers, we need to really try to get our heads around these dilemmas, the things we take for granted.

And I think the final point that I want to raise in regard to taking things for granted is situations if they don’t quite feel right. The body knows. We feel it in our gut if something doesn’t feel quite right. And so we can maybe say, well, I don’t want to go into that at this moment in time. Now, I might want to vocalise that, or I might not. Might want to keep it to ourselves.

Likewise, if there’s something unexpected happening and it entices you, you get drawn into it, and you’re feeling really good about it, then why not let it go with it? Let it take you further in because it may open up further opportunities to not necessarily just capture data, but to experience more as the researcher to really try to unlock some of the mysteries of the research.

So what if a particular situation in your research just doesn’t feel right? You’re in the field. You find yourself somewhere doing something. And it just doesn’t quite feel right to you.

I’ve had these experiences, and they’ve taken many forms. It sometimes might be related to your own personal security or the security of someone else. Or maybe you’re observing something happening that makes you feel very uncomfortable perhaps because of different cultural practices, different cultural values, or just something might be very, very risky.

Playing Australian rules football is quite a risky sport. It’s a fast-paced game, and so on. So my idea of should I go and play well, I’m much older than the players. And so me going out to play on the field with them, I’d be putting a lot at risk. I don’t think that my body would stand up to it.

So perhaps what’s holding me back in that is my body itself. My body’s sending me a message – perhaps that’s something you shouldn’t be doing. Perhaps there are other ways you can try to gain a different understanding or perhaps an even better understanding by taking a different perspective.

But then there could be some even more, if you like, risky situations that you might find yourself in. So the best advice I can offer you is that you are part of a community of practice that if you’re not sure about something, if you have the time to stop and think and reflect, to check in with your fellow researchers back at your university or wherever, to check with other participants, to check with senior people that you’re working with and sort of ask, is it OK to do this? Should I be doing this? What could I be doing differently? So always making sure that you’re comfortable in the research that you do.

You must be asking yourself practically, what can you do to build trust, to nurture relationships so that you get the most out of the research experience and so do your participants? Well, perhaps I could share some thoughts or some reflections from my own experiences over the last twenty years or so as an ethnographer, as a researcher.

I suppose the most important thing I’ve learned is to listen, to listen to participants. What do I mean by that? Well, my first experience of going and visiting Papunya before the fieldwork ever started, I went and I listened. I hardly said anything over two days. I introduced myself very briefly on a couple of occasions, but that was it.

And why was that? Well, understanding that, at that time, I was very much an outsider but also understanding the cultural practices and values within the community itself that the people who speak are the elders. Everybody else listens in public forums. And so it wasn’t right for me to speak up. It wasn’t right for me to ask questions.

So I’m sure as a researcher going into the field for the first time, you’re full of questions. You want to absorb things straight away. But perhaps the best thing you can do is to sit back and listen. Even through that research project, I’ll sit with my camera in the cafe and have a latte with elders and show them photographs. And it’s really great to just listen to their responses.

So where I’m seeing football players on a field, they’re looking at the landscape behind. And they’re telling me things. They’re showing me things that I’ve not seen myself. And so simply by listening, I can pick up so much more than by asking lots of questions because I might not know the right questions to ask.

It’s also important to show participants that you’re listening to them as well. So, yeah, when I’m sitting there with my camera and a latte and we’re talking through the photographs, it’s really important to then respond to what participants are telling me and to ask them a little bit more about what they mean, to laugh along with their jokes, to maybe have a little bit of a joke yourself. Build that rapport.

I think the other thing building on that point would be about checking your own interpretations. If you’re not sure, ask. And then listen. And that’s a form of reciprocity in and of itself. But there are all sorts of forms of reciprocity.

Generally, anthropologists have written a lot about reciprocity. It all sort of stemmed from the idea of gift giving, so going and visiting a community and offering gifts in exchange for the research data. But it’s more than just gifts. You can bring so much more.

I’ve talked before about perhaps you might have skills or talents that you could bring. You might have connections you could offer. Who knows? But there could be ways that you can build trust and reciprocity between yourself and other participants that you’d not even thought of that they might think of.

So, again, listen out for it. What can you do in exchange for the wonderful gifts that they’re offering you in terms of their knowledge, their understandings, their stories, and so on?

And I think, finally, what I’ve learned is just be yourself. Be honest with participants and truthful to yourself. Be who you are. You don’t have to become something else to be a researcher.

As a researcher, be yourself. And then other people will learn to trust you. Your relationships will grow. And you’ll gain comfort in each other’s presence so that then the research flows.

You’re probably thinking, well, there are competing demands here. There’s the need to get into the project, to do the research, to get the data, to get out the other side and get it published, and then perhaps move on to the other project.

Everything I’ve been talking about takes time, takes effort. It takes energy. It takes care. And so that’s a huge dilemma for you as a researcher. It’s dilemma for me. But I found ways to really try to reconcile that for myself.

And so for me, it’s more than just research. It may not necessarily be for you. But some things that you might want to consider before going into the field is to think about how this research might grow beyond its original aims.

I think it’s important to know the difference between what the project is and what the research is. For me, the project is a big box. And within that is a smaller box of the research.

So at Papunya with the sports, the big project is the communities coming together in meaningful ways to participate in sport and with a longer term aim to build that into a football league. And that has cultural value to it. It has social value to it.

My research within that is to tell a particular story from a particular time to show the world what’s going on here and why it’s meaningful. And so I’m able to separate out the research from the project to take the what’s needed, to publish from it, to share the story, but then also to stay in contact with the community to help it through its longer journey, its broader journey.

You might ask yourself, OK, so if there’s a difference between the research and the project, how do you see yourself beyond being a researcher? I talked about different roles and different identities. What other skills can you offer that extend beyond the research? You might think like I do about ways of supporting the participants that you work with, the communities, what sort of advocacy you might provide, how you might help raise awareness of the issues that they face, the phenomenons in their life.

And this question of what happens when the research is over? Do you just move on to the next project and lose contact? Or out of a sense of duty of care and just being a human being, do you want to keep in touch? And how do you want to keep in touch? And why do you want to keep in touch? Why would others want you to keep in touch?

So these are all things to think about as your research evolves and develops, as things emerge, as things change. You yourself as a researcher, you’ll change and transform throughout the process. It is a process. You’ll be learning along the way, just as I have, just as I continue to.

For me, it’s incredibly rewarding. As I said before, I see this as far more than just work. This is a vocation for me it. It’s part of who I am, a big part of who I am. And so I just hope that by sharing some of these hints and tips with you, some of this practical advice, that you can take this into your own practice and develop your own way of being as a researcher.

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