Gaining and Maintaining Access

Gaining and maintaining access when researching security, organised crime and violence

 by Verena Brähler, January 2012

Gaining access

The key question that PhD students in the field of security, organised crime and violence are constantly confronted with is: “But how do you gain access to these people?” Whether it is our parents, supervisors, friends, the Research Degree Committee of our university or possible funding bodies, everybody wants to know our strategy for gaining access to those people “on the inside” – be they police, drug traffickers or simple slum residents affected by violence.

To make it short, there is no correct or universal answer to that question because the ability to gain access depends on the research context, the topic, the country, the participants and – most importantly – on yourself, who you are, your personality, your outer appearance, your foreign languages skills, and how you are perceived by others. From my own experience I can say that gaining access is not difficult. The real challenge lies in maintaining access and managing relationships with research participants.

Usually when you are doing field research, you get in contact with people from your field very easily – at conferences, seminars, public hearings, community meetings or when visiting local NGOs. If one subject recommends talking to another subject, this is called snowballing. Access to groups is often made possible by a gatekeeper. In social science research, a gatekeeper is a person that helps you to gain access to the group you wish to study. Examples for gatekeepers in the field of security, organised crime and violence are community leaders, police captains, drug abusers or victims of domestic violence. Because it is in the nature of people to be curious, making first contact with a gatekeeper is thus relatively easy.

Maintaining access

However, maintaining access and establishing relationships of trust with research participants is a lot more difficult. From my own field research experiences I know that in a first meeting research participants offer very little information compared to what they are willing to reveal after several weeks and months of knowing you. Hence, the most important thing you need to have when researching sensitive issues is time. If your field research trip only lasts a couple of days or weeks, most likely you will only scratch on the surface of things. Continued engagement is another crucial factor. Try to meet your gatekeepers and research participants on a regular basis. This will give continuity and stability to the relationship. Not all your meetings need or should be specifically about your research. In order to gain trust, it is helpful to share common interests, e.g. attending a public meeting together or meeting at a community festivity.

Managing relationships

Managing relationships with research participants over a period of time is probably the most difficult part: Where does your research end and a personal relationship with the participant begin? How much intimacy is allowed or necessary? How do you respond to tears, confessions or threats by your participant? How do you avoid witnessing crime and violence? Should you accept presents if you suspect they were bought with drug money?

Unfortunately, there is no handbook with straightforward answers to these questions. However, the following tips might give guidance for how to manage relationships with gatekeepers and other research participants in the field of security, organised crime and violence:

  • Be honest: Be honest and transparent about the nature and purpose of your research and do not research covertly. This is unethical and could potentially increase the risk of witnessing something illegal.
  • Be patient: Developing relationships of trust needs time. Give respondents space and time to raise issues that they want to talk about, even though it is unrelated to your research. Plan sufficient time for your field research trip so that you do not get nervous to produce more results in a short time.
  • Be yourself: Be true to yourself and where you come from. Do not dress, speak or act differently just to make your research participants like you more.
  • Make your homework: Before you meet your research participants or travel to (potentially) dangerous places, make your homework. What do you know about the person you will meet and the place you are visiting? How will you get there? How will you get back home? Who is your contact? What information are you looking for? Have you informed someone on the outside that you are going?
  • Know who you are talking to: You should be very aware who your research participant is and his or her standing in the group or community. Meeting with one particular group or having a more intimate relationship with one person might compromise your reputation as an unbiased researcher. For instance, a community leader might be part of a wider balance of power that you are not aware of. Talking about sensitive issues with this person might endanger him, yourself or other groups. Never push research participants to reveal relationships that they might have with criminal actors.
  • Do not pretend you are one of them: Do not pretend you are one of them (unless you are and have a more personal research motivation). Pretending to know what research participants are going through when they talk about extrajudicial killings, domestic violence or drug trafficking is not credible and might make them angry.
  • Protect your data: Make sure all your research notes and interview transcripts are stored in a safe place, no matter if they are on paper or in electronic format. When doing field visits, you should leave behind contact details and notes that could endanger yourself or your research participants when it falls into the wrong hands (e.g. it could be confiscated by the police). For example, if you have noted down information about one drug trafficking cartel in a booklet, do not take the same booklet when visiting a community under the control of a rival cartel.

Further reading

For more information and tips, I recommend reading “Surviving Field Research: Working in Violent and Difficult Situations” (2009) by Chandra Lekha Sriram et al. (London, New York: Routledge).

Book description: In recent decades there has been increasing attention to mass atrocities such as genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other gross human rights violations. At the same time, there has been a vast increase in the number of academics and researchers seeking to analyze the causes of, and offer practical responses to, these atrocities. Yet there remains insufficient discussion of the practical and ethical challenges surrounding research into serious abuses and dealing with vulnerable populations.

The aim of this edited volume is to guide researchers in identifying and addressing challenges in conducting qualitative research in difficult circumstances, such as conducting research in autocratic or uncooperative regimes, with governmental or non-governmental officials, and perhaps most importantly, with reluctant respondents such as victims of genocide or (on the other side of the coin) war criminals. The volume proceeds in five substantive sections, each addressing a different challenge of conducting field research in conflict-affected or repressive situations: Ethics, Access, Veracity, Security and Identity, Objectivity, Behaviour.

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