These are some strange, strange times. (My God, the emails over the past several weeks that’ve opened with that tired-ass line. Ugh.) I’ll admit. This sucks. All of it. There’s no way around it. Yes, COVID-19 has turned our lives upside-down and with it all of our half-baked, wonderfully (and painfully) crafted projects. But I implore you to believe me—all is not lost. This is the chance to rethink old (and sometimes tired) notions. As researchers, we’re in a bind. How do we collect data if we can’t actually. Go. Collect. Data? What do we do with our projects, half-finished and half-thought? What happens to all the ‘meanings’ we meant to find, once we got into the field? And how do we find the people we hoped to speak with? Well, if you’re a researcher you just gotta know where to look. (I mean, that is our job. Right?). And the best place to start is by looking at who’s looked in hard-to-reach places, with unconventional tools and in unique ways.
Two words: Deviance. Research.
Ta-dah! Yeah, I know. I know. Very anti-climatic. (But a gurl can dream, can’t she?) Anyways, I’m that researcher. As such, I’m familiar with researching people that don’t want to be reached and in ways that aren’t always *ahem* legal. Just kidding! (Maybe). Thus, being in the field taught me a crapload more about methodological ‘expectations’ verses any theoretical approaches. Now, how do I know this might work when my data wasn’t collected during COVID-19? Because most of my participants were already limited in time and resources, making in-person/physical meetings less likely—hence, the alternative creative approaches to methods. So, from one researcher to another, here are some real life tips on what to consider when trying to figure out how to sample (or strategize getting) participants in these very, very strange times.
- Although this is a bit more directed towards deviance research, the perspective still applies. Deviant members don’t particularly want to be found and most are uninterested in an academic’s ‘research’. If you want any hope of contacting them—much less collecting data from/with them—you have to work within their constraints, not yours. Now, I understand researchers have their own issues atm. I get it. But the access points to potential participants have now (thanks, COVID) become extremely limited. So, you’ve got to start from that vantage point. Or you’ll lose sight of a main project goal—getting actual participants. Be realistic and set realistic goals. Period.
- Next, consider the usual ‘face-to-face interview-based’ data collection strategies. Yup. Those approaches are not gonna work—at least not in their traditional designs—but they are still strong starting points. So think of them in practical terms. Where are people most likely to be accessible now? Online. Now, let’s be frank. What do you think the return rate is for online interaction? Yeah, bro… it’s low AF. Ok. That’s settled. You’ve got a clear idea of a significant limitation. Great. Moving on. It’s still an access point. Use it and maximize the hell outta it. But remember, it’s never about the thing itself. It is how the thing is used. Use the platforms you’re familiar with and find new ones. Reach out to your own networks and ask for recruitment help. Many people are usually happy to help—(I stress, usually). More importantly, use the platforms your potential participants may use. This isn’t an ‘if you build it, they will come’ motif BS. This is real life. You gotta go to where the action is. So, figure out where these groups congregate online, their apps, etc. and target those spaces. If you’ve got peeps in those hoods, even better. Reach out. If not, learn their spaces real quick. (I mean, we’re all PI’s underneath it all. Act like it.)
- Now, looking for diversity in your sample? That’s still possible with online recruitment, you just gotta work harder. Post your project on Facebook, MeetUp (there’s still ‘interactions’), etc. Create an online space for your project so people have the opportunity to take initiative when you’re not chasing down potential leads. Most people respond well to this form of transparency. Think of it like a ‘home base’—both you and them can always circle back here. Tbh, any online forum/chatrooms where people with similar interests may interact—start there. There are literally endless platforms and networks within every community, so make the most out of them. And remember, it usually takes a particular type of person to be open to talking to a researcher in the first place (aka selection bias). If they’re interested or you find them, either can develop that initial interaction. Don’t push it. Just keep putting it out there and be open-minded. Keep in mind that other avenues eventually evolve from your initial steps. You’ll find them if you work at developing them. Be patient.
- And ya know that ‘originally’ planned in-person interview? Yeah. That’s not happening. So, think of how else can you conduct interviews. Zoom? Skype? Facebook video messenger? WeChat? Use them. And how about those focus groups? HouseParty, etc. Whatever. Find some tool and use it. Pronto. Will some ‘authenticity’ be lost? Yeah, but getting participants is like going on dates. Not every date is the same, right? That’s what happens with every forum and method—something is ‘lost’ based on context. But, it’s still data. Beggars can’t be choosers (and you ain’t Bey). Attend to this in your design and manage any shortcomings. Best way to do this? Mixed-methods or triangulation (i.e. use more than one strategy and method. They offset each other and can complement the overall design/methods, if used appropriately).
- If your research is focused on intimate knowledge, interview for longer periods. People tend to open up the longer the interaction (it’s a non-verbal cue, look it up). If you want more general (and perhaps superficial) interactions—Keep. It. Short. Also, being an in-group member helps with intimate or deviant data collection. Why? People tend to trust people that are ‘like’ them. If you’re not in da club, figure out how to get in or get someone to vouch for you (i.e. gatekeepers). If your project doesn’t require this type of nitty-gritty, just bounce. Either way, don’t stress.
- And finally, all those bazillion roadblocks you’ll come across while doing all these? Yeah, that’s gonna be really significant data, in itself, at the end of the project (talk to an ethnographer if you don’t believe me).
Now, remember my outreach to out-group participants? Yeah, only one-third of them were met in-person, and of those I had to go out of my way (60-90 miles to be exact) to sit down in front of each one. Overwhelmingly, most interviews were done with tech, via Skype/Zoom, FaceTime, phone, etc.—any electronic means actually. Yet, all of them were contacted through some technical forum. And that part where I mentioned the roadblocks being part of your data? Yeah, those were key reasons I couldn’t recruit people in-person, or physically meet most of them. Why? They were either in-between projects or work, were too far away, or simply not available to meet with some random researcher, i.e. me (hence, I had to work within their constraints). And what did I find? I found out what their spaces were and lit those babies up. So guess what happened? They either enlisted themselves or showed interest in the project. Like, literally. It blew my mind. And none of this was ever mentioned in ‘traditional methods’.
Now, was it all rainbows and butterflies? Hell no. I mean, I even gained ONE damn troll in the process of this crap. (Honored, though I am *happy tear*). Still, cycling through ‘traditional methods’ just didn’t work. In fact, they blew up in my face. Royally. But, once I started realizing how those methods only worked for traditional people and ‘normal’ times (and my target groups were anything but traditional despite ‘normal’ times), I quickly realized I had to get creative. Fast. So, I pounced on their movements. I learned to listen to these groups and their interests. And I quickly learned to step to their pace. And what came outta it? A design I couldn’t be more proud of and an understanding I couldn’t have ever predicted. Now, the books were a decent start, I’ll give them that. But the real methods came from maneuvering within participants. In fact, had I not taken heed of their needs and constraints, I don’t think I could have collected the data I did. And that’s the honest truth.
So, go forth young sprites! There’s new knowledge to be found—and new ways to get there. Be the researcher you came to university to be.
Amy Andrada is a PhD Sociology candidate at the University of Edinburgh. Her research focuses on deviance, family, and gender studies. She is currently writing up her mammoth of a PhD while simultaneously raising her precocious 16-year old son. (Wish her luck in both.) She may be reached at email@example.com.