I remember February 2011, when, in the Chinese megacity of Guangzhou, an older man finally overcame his scepticism about being interviewed and invited me to sit down next to him on a stone bench under a shady tree. I held my notebook on my lap, and we sat on either side of a translator and talked about his life and world for more than two hours. It was one of the most informative and revealing interviews that I had done during my fieldwork in the city.
Making it in the megacity
One of the most fundamental challenges in qualitative fieldwork is gaining access to research participants. This is often time-consuming and labour-intensive, particularly when the topic requires in-depth methods and addresses a sensitive subject.
Advice that goes beyond the usual recommendations of establishing relationships with gatekeepers, ensuring anonymity for interviewees and relying on the snowball sampling technique (in which one research participant suggests further ones) is rare. In this light, I’m happy to share some simple, but often neglected, examples from my qualitative fieldwork in the lively Guangzhou (where I worked for 12 months)1 and on the remote, Arctic island chain of Lofoten, Norway (done over 4 months)2, that might offer some inspiration and encouragement.
I have a background in human geography, and did my PhD on experiences of stress, coping and resilience among the Chinese population of Guangzhou in the face of the city’s rapid urbanization. I travelled there five times to help to establish research cooperation with Chinese scholars, make field observations, select a case-study site and interview locals. I, together with other PhD students, stayed in a typical Chinese high-rise apartment in a neighbourhood that wasn’t a common choice for expatriates. Living side-by-side with the locals gave us a perfect opportunity to experience genuine everyday life and Chinese culture.
My first postdoctoral project after my PhD brought me to Lofoten, where I looked at psychological barriers to climate adaptation in small-scale coastal fisheries. I went to Lofoten twice. On my first visit, I travelled across the whole archipelago by bus for one month to get a profound overview of the fishing villages and local living conditions, and to conduct first interviews. During my second visit, I stayed for a total of three months in rental locations near fishing harbours, and conducted more extensive interviews.
In both China and Norway, I used in-depth interviews to learn about the challenges that people face. I asked people about unemployment, about the possibility of being forced to move elsewhere and about how climate change might affect their livelihoods. This required a sensitive and thoughtful approach to ‘getting invited’ into people’s lives. In Guangzhou, German- and English-speaking Chinese students assisted me as translators (and interpreters, when needed). On Lofoten, I conducted the interviews myself in English.
There are two ways to access research participants: physical access, which refers to the ability of the researcher to get in direct face-to-face contact with people, and mental access. Successful mental access means that interlocutors open up about why they think, feel and behave as they do. Physical access is a necessary condition for mental access; however, in my experience, both are equally valuable.
Compared with Lofoten, it took longer to get physical access to local inhabitants in China. Presumably, this was because of the language barrier and reliance on translators, as well as cultural differences. Trust is considered a central tenet in Chinese relationships, and time and effort are needed to let it grow. During my time in Guangzhou, I occasionally benefited from being a foreigner: people were touched that someone from abroad showed genuine interest in their well-being. In Lofoten, fishers appreciated talking to a social scientist instead of a natural scientist who would have mainly asked questions about fishing quotas and catch volume.
My advice for other social scientists hoping to gain access to research participants falls into those two categories.
How to get good physical access
Use local public transport. Using local public transport creates many unexpected opportunities to bump into people, get into conversations and gain relevant information. For example, while waiting at a bus stop in Lofoten, I came across an art-gallery owner from a fishing village. He wondered why I was travelling out of the peak tourism season. I ended up with an invitation to his gallery, where he introduced me to two retired fishers whom he had also invited. Without the gallerist and his proactive networking, I probably would not have been given the chance to interview these two very informative and engaging fishers.
In a metro station in Guangzhou, a toddler kept staring at me and tried to touch my light hair. This small interaction led me to chat to the toddler’s father, who recommended that I talk to a local teacher to learn more about the area’s history. His advice opened up important insights into urban-restructuring processes that I would have missed otherwise.
Nine ‘brain food’ tips for researchers
Use local media. In Norway, a journalist was at the harbour to get first-hand information on the year’s cod catch, when he saw me interviewing fishers. He became curious and eager to learn more about my work. In the end, he wrote an article about my research, which was published a few days later across Lofoten. His article was a door-opener for me.
People recognized me from my photo in the article and contacted me to tell me about their lives and the cod fisheries. They also invited me on their vessels and put me in touch with other key informants.
Change your workplace. During fieldwork, a workplace is often needed for interview transcription, literature research and interim data analysis. Moving the workplace outside wherever you are staying during a field trip allows you to immerse yourself in the daily lives of local people and interact with them more easily. For me, such agile ‘mini-office’ locations were cafes, public libraries and picnic tables. In this way, I was able to recruit interview partners on the spot.
How to create deeper mental access
Wear appropriate outfits. First impressions count, always. Researchers are judged not only on what they say and how they say it, but also on how they look. Certain clothes, such as those with a political slogan or religious symbol, have certain meanings and connotations. Depending on the context and whom you talk to, your appearance could promote or impede making connections and building rapport. For instance, whereas my practical ‘outdoorsy’ get-dirty outfit was appropriate for interviews on fishing vessels, a modest appearance (non-branded clothes and a simple style) was useful in rural areas of Guangzhou.
Show respect. Just like in any other relationship, respect and humility play a crucial part in building a trustworthy interviewer–interviewee relationship. Showing respect can be subtly embedded in conversations in many ways, including in the content of questions and the manner in which they are asked. When interviewees started to close down when asked about painful issues, such as underemployment or loss of identity, I upheld their privacy, comfort and security by not probing when given an evasive answer. Instead, I changed the interview focus and, when appropriate, cautiously reapproached the sensitive issue by using interview techniques such as roleplaying. Interviewees were asked to put themselves in the position of someone else, such as a spatial planner or politician, and assess the issue at hand from this perspective. Taking such an imaginary role can help to make the interviewees feel more secure and face pain more openly.
Be humble. Having a modest view of yourself is essential to communicate at eye level with people. As a scientist, you can easily fall into the trap of thinking that your thoughts and concepts are somehow more valuable because you are well-educated and established. However, you are the one asking questions — and the interviewees, whether they are fishers, farmers or homeless people, often know more about many things than you do. Being aware of this is an expression of humility. I let the interviewees know that they were the local experts and I was the foreign learner.
Use small talk. Small talk — including non-verbal communication, such as smiling, or connective gestures, for example handing out a handkerchief or offering some tea — has an essential bonding function. Talking about ‘safe’ topics can help the interviewee to overcome the feelings of otherness, newness and discomfort that can emerge in an interview, and fosters social cohesiveness. This can help to counteract the asymmetrical power relationship between the researcher (who asks) and the researched (who answers). For example, before substantive questioning, I created shared experiences by talking about last night’s storm or the world cod-fishing championship, which takes place every year in Lofoten. This took the relationship to a greater level of intimacy and togetherness — which small talk after finishing the interview can strengthen. I remember joking about my stamina for eating properly with chopsticks to one interviewee.
Use self-disclosure. Revealing selected information about yourself and sharing your own thoughts with interlocutors can help to create and reaffirm a sphere of confidentiality and trust. Fishers in Norway would, for instance, often ask “What interested you in Lofoten coastal fisheries?” or “Why do you ask me and not the scientists from Tromsø University?” I answered such questions honestly, which assisted in creating a more balanced relationship, encouraging the interviewees to address sensitive subjects more openly and readily.
Change interview sites. In several interviews, I found that the answers given tended to depend on where the interview was held and which identity that site evoked for the interviewee. For example, a fisher did not talk about climate-change concerns on his fishing vessel (any concern was masked by his existential fear of losing his livelihood as a coastal fisher), but he later that day freely discussed his worries in his home. Changing the interview site can be a helpful technique to access hidden thoughts and feelings.
Above all, be realistic. You will probably make mistakes; I regretted not dressing warmly enough on a fishing vessel in Arctic weather. Locals will find you amusing, weird or impolite. They will keep out of your way, and you will never know why. And they will terminate interviews prematurely with no excuse. And that’s all right. In the end, fieldwork is a combination of planning, resources, time, skills, hard work, commitment, headache, joy — and luck. Learn from your mistakes, and accept the things you cannot change.