Practical Considerations to Facilitate Data Collection
Perhaps no other dimension of qualitative research work is associated with ambiguity, uncertainty, confusion, and complexity more than fieldwork. One way to regulate these issues—to support more predictable experiences in the course of a study—is to strengthen relationships associated with events in the field. On one side, faculty and peers, which we discuss above, form the core of a graduate student’s professional and social networks. Indeed, course instructors, faculty advisors, department chairs and program directors, work supervisors (who may also double as formal or de facto faculty advisors and/or course instructors), and other students function as the center of the academic and social lives of students in doctoral programs. These individuals generally offer students advice, guidance, and often mentorship on a range of issues related to coursework, scholarly work and research opportunities, career and professional job prospects, and social events/activities. Collectively as a group, they are the people with whom students interact most frequently on, and in many cases, off campus. The lasting, lifelong mentorship and friendship connections with which students leave their degree programs often emerge from these relationships. So, the importance of how you interact with faculty and students in your programs means a lot to your academic and career outcomes. But perhaps just as significant as these associations with faculty and students are the ones that students foster with individuals off campus, in the field, to support research work. (Of course, if higher education is the field where students will perform their research work, then they will remain on campus!)
As students move through their coursework, their focus naturally turns to efforts to advance their dissertation research work. While balancing their relationships with folks who will supervise (chair) and approve (committee) their study, they must consider how best to locate and access research participants and collect data in the field. With qualitative research, this is particularly important—central—to the development of a methodological framework where you propose how to go about sampling, recruiting, selecting, and then interviewing, observing, etc. folks in their everyday lives where they live and work. Granted, you may not know everyone with whom you will talk, listen, watch, and interact in the field—you will almost certainly not have sampled a single participant before you have designed your study, produced a dissertation proposal, and defended your plan to your dissertation committee. But, at some point, you must reach out to and establish relationships with the real players in a qualitative study—gatekeepers and informants.
In general, your efforts to gather information in your dissertation study depends on the strength of your connections to gatekeepers—or folks who approve your access to a field site—and informants—research participants who serve as insiders to your study and share insight, information, and cues to social behavior. In fact, informants function as interpreters in social groups—helping researchers decode dimensions of human social life. These people are key to getting and understanding information before, during, and after fieldwork. Of course, you could complete a research study without working with a gatekeeper or informant—but you may not get very far into the field, reach the participants who will share the information that you need for you to answer your research questions, or have the tools you need to interpret the information that you gather.
As you formulate your research questions—early in your study—you should consider potential gatekeepers and informants. That is, using the formula for research questions—phenomenon + group + site—focus on the group and site. At the site, who’s in charge? Who’s in a position of authority and power? For example, at a school site or in a school community, who are the principal and/or assistant principal—or the PTA or foundation board president? In a church, parish, or faith community, who is the pastor, priest, parish oversight committee chair, etc.? Gatekeepers usually serve in leadership positions and have the institutional, organizational, or group control over who accesses members of the community—students, parents, parishioners. Once you identify these key players as gatekeepers, think about who you already know that could introduce you or give you entre to the gatekeepers. Perhaps a phone number or email address is what you need or maybe a social call or individual meeting serves you best—the specific approach depends on the unique set of factors related to the group and individuals associated with the site. As a general rule, you really cannot start thinking about and planning for fieldwork early—so plan during problem, purpose, and question, formulation!
At the gatekeeper level, what you need is approval—not a warm, fuzzy relationship that will last a lifetime. So, look to establish and maintain a respectful, mutually beneficial association with whomever serves as an approver and can control access to participants. Frequently, offering to share results, findings, and recommendations with a leadership group or groups in a community goes a long way to demonstrating commitment to the general welfare of the community and documents motives beyond a researcher’s own career or scholarly interests. Offering to deliver a presentation about the study—if appropriate—goes even further. Perhaps using the presentation as a professional development session, which is particularly effective in educational or bureaucratic organizational settings, may work. The idea here is to move outside your researcher role and into the role of a member of the community—how would they benefit from your research work? More to the ego—in more self-serving terms—how will a gatekeeper or gatekeepers personally or professionally benefit from your research work? On occasion, less altruistic motives, such as personal gain, sometimes is a factor in decisions about giving access to a site. You should anticipate this dimension of the approval process. These questions relate directly to the one that you will consider: What will you leave behind in the field? How will you exit the field?
How you exit the field needs to be planned well ahead of the completion of fieldwork. Yes, the course of fieldwork—what transpires during data collection—will likely change how you end data collection and move back into the office to analyze data as an exclusive activity in your study. Overall, this is an ethical question that you must outline before fieldwork begins. The approval work that you do with gatekeepers naturally supports approaches to exiting the field, but so too does the work to move closer to participants through informants. At the informant level, questions about how your work will benefit a group or organization may come into play, but the issues are generally more personal here. Accordingly, you need to think about how your research work will shape the individual lives and collective social fabric of the group Of course, just like with gatekeepers, more self-serving interests may motivate a member of a community to work with you as an informant—but the impact that you have as a researcher on the lives of folks whom an informant knows personally—in the case of an ethnographic study—or knows as part of her or his identity group—more in the case of a phenomenological or grounded theory study—usually plays into decisions about how to participate in this role.
As you assess whom you know as a potential informant at a prospective research site or sites—think about who will have the strongest likelihood of helping you access participants and interpret what they say (or do or make). Perhaps the first step here is to consult a gatekeeper, if you are new to the research site. Here, you will get the lay of the land—who are the key players and who may be willing to speak with you. But gatekeepers may not know everyone in the community or may not know every micro- or sub-group in the community. In these cases, you may need to survey the group or settings where you will collect data. This process may take time—and require multiple observations sessions or interviews to explore and resolve, but the payoff may be huge (and strengthen the trustworthiness of your data and credibility of your study—discussed in Chapter 8).