How to convince Research Ethics Committees of the importance of in situ interviews?
by Verena Brähler, October 2011
In situ interviews are interviews that are conducted on-site. The advantage of this is that interviewees generally feel more comfortable, secure and self-confident when they are interviewed in environments that they know. Furthermore, costs to participate are low because interviewees do not need to travel to research institutions that are far away. Also, the time spent on the interview does not mean a big strain on their daily work and family commitments. However, in situ interviews might also be disadvantageous when participants feel limited to speak freely or are afraid of being punished (by criminal actors, for instance) for their participation. Sometimes the locality is simply inadequate to conduct an interview (e.g. farmers working in extreme weather conditions).
As part of my research on the “Inequality of Security in Rio de Janeiro”, it is essential for me to conduct interviews in favelas (shantytowns) that are sometimes under the rule of a drug trafficking faction or militias. When submitting my research plan to the Research Ethics Committee (REC) of my university, I stated that participation in my research will be free and voluntary and interviews will only be carried out if the necessary preconditions of safety and privacy are given. Participants would be informed that they can withdraw from the interview at any stage, without having to explain their decision and interviewees would at no stage be pushed to reveal information that could harm them or their families, or disclose relationships with illegal actors. I stated that when negotiating access to a specific community, I would be honest and transparent about the nature and purpose of the research and would not research covertly. Because of the increased drug sales activities in favelas on evenings and weekends, research would never be conducted during these times.
However, the REC did not feel comfortable with the fact that I was planning to conduct in situ interviews and suggested that all interviews should be held in the safe environment of my partnering university in the city centre.
With a survey sample size of more than 200 participants this would simply be impossible. Most of my participants are relatively safe as long as they stay within their respective communities where they have built strong social ties over the years. However, if they would be asked to travel to other parts of the city in order to participate in the study, they might need to transgress rival territories or face other difficulties, such as time commitment and travel expenses. I was afraid that the survey, the key element of my PhD research, would have to be cancelled because of the rather unrealistic conditions of the REC.
In the end, I could convince the REC that in order to ensure research coherence, it was very important to conduct in-depth ethnographic study, which included observation and in situ interviews in different favelas. I explained that it was advisable to study the participants’ perception of insecurity within its given context and not create disruptions in their day-to-day lives.
- Have you made similar experiences with the Research Degree Committee at your university?
- Are RECs sufficiently prepared to decide whether a given research methodology is feasible and appropriate or not?
- What could be done to close the gap between the expectations of the REC and the reality of researchers working in the field of security, organised crime and violence?
One of the ways that I was able to carry out interviews for my research on internal displacement in Medellin, Colombia, was to do them in the offices of a local NGO that worked with some of the displaced. The NGO was based in the centre of town, so this meant that I did not have to go up to some of the ‘comunas’ which were experiencing heightened levels of violence. The added benefit was that this NGO was also trusted by these particular interviewees (whereas the university was respected there wasn’t the same level of trust). This meant that the interviewees opened up to me and felt at relative ease to talk, whilst the interviews which I did take in the ‘comunas’, I felt posed more of a risk for the interviewees given the close proximity (cheek-to-jowl) of living conditions between families in the ‘comunas’, where conversations can easily be overheard, and the presence of a ‘foreign’ researcher is much more noticeable.
I think the idea of going through local NGOs, as mentioned above by Libby Kerr, is very interesting. It might not be possible under all circumstances, but I think I will also try that strategy in my field research in Colombia. Apart from the fact that interviewees might feel safer and more at ease, I think it also offers some safety to the researcher, especially in dangerous areas. I am planning to visit some remote areas of Colombia, where I hope to establish contacts with local NGOs before travelling there. They might also be able to help with (safe) accomodation, information, contacts, and other services the researcher may need “in the field”.
Hi Verena, I agree that the observation part that come with in situ interviews is essential. I just went through this with 208 surveys in Brazil and I must say I learned as much from the surveys as I did by walking around the common environment my participants shared.
But RECs acts this way because their job is to protect not only the participants but also the researcher so they act on the side of caution most of the time. It’s a bargaining process with them, but usually when your supervisor agrees with you, then you have a good case and they’ll end up agreeing.
There is always a great challenge to convince ethics counsels of ethnographic research due to it difficulty in pinning down what are conceived as exact methods. In the anthropology department this is a discussion we have often. How does one turn the ethnographic “Well I just plan to hang around and talk to people” into the specific research language needed to fill out an ethics or funding form?
I think in these terms the ethnographic traditions have a place in questioning ethics processes themselves and their real meanings – in terms of how they can actually be validated by predicting what will happen in the field – that generally turns out not to happen.
It is a question as with research itself, in learning a specific terminology and way and writing/explaining that fits in with the ethics discourse. I agree with Sabrina who has stated that they are there to protect you as much as the research participants and there obviously is a place for ethics in research. I problem I find is that there is not enough flexibility in terms of different research topics and sites – there are types of research where structured organised interviews are impractical or even inappropriate such as in conflict zones, borders, areas of great movement etc. and ethical approval boards need to take this into account.