How to get and keep research access: Tales from secretive fields

//How to get and keep research access: Tales from secretive fields

Victoria Reitter|PhD Candidate, Department of Sociology, Paris Lodron University of Salzburg

Planning to research state-authorities is fun. You are full of anticipation to finally getting to look behind the curtains and gaining some insights into the back-stage performance of the state, the supposed secret dealings and happenings inaccessible to regular citizens. Much of the work that state-authorities do, is a black box.

To actually research state-authorities, on the other hand, is a downer. You realize that the doors are really thoroughly closed to outsiders. As a trained ethnographer, I learned not to be intimidated by negative or lacking responses to interview requests, to stay patient, persistent and flexible at the same time, and to tirelessly follow various paths and entry points. This sounds a little bit like a battle plan, I have to admit, but that is what you need when you plan to investigate secretive fields (see e.g. Monahan and Fisher 2015).

In my PhD, I am researching how state-agents in state-authorities deal with statelessness. When I started to organize access to my field, my anthropological self-esteem was challenged in unknown ways. It seemed that what happens inside this black box stays inside. I constantly had to follow up people who (consciously or unconsciously) ‘forgot’ to answer, who just ignored me or tried to get rid of me with some impersonal rejection template. Not even the most beautifully written letter with signatures and stamps from my university left an impression. It seemed that I needed another battle plan.

Gaining Access and Finding Alternatives

I developed a radical ‘whateverness’. Not only did I ask everyone I met and all of my contacts if they knew people in those state-authorities, I also perkily contacted very high-ranking state officials directly. It took a while, a whole year in total, but finally, I got my first interview. What is true for ethnography (and life) in general – getting what you want through the closely-knit web of social contacts – is even truer in the secretive Austrian state-authority-landscape. The measure of what you can achieve correlates to how many people you know.

The consequences of gaining access via high-ranking state officials required some adaptions in my research design. Originally, I had planned to research the street-level of public-service employees; those who actually apply the regulations, have direct contacts with applicants and make the final decisions (Michael Lipsky 1980). However, now I primarily got access to the high-levels of public-service strata, those who have significant influence on the design and nucleus of the regulations. Hence, all of a sudden, I was interviewing elites and, thus, ‘studying up’ (Nader 1972).

Yet, with regard to participant observation, the actual heart of ethnography, I was not able to get field access. Not being allowed to participate in the field, I observed ‘around the field’ in order to enhance my understanding about the field with the method of ‘hanging out’ (Clifford 1996). Usually, I arrived early, in order to spend some time there waiting for my interview appointments. I talked to and joked with door(wo)men and security personal; chatted with trainees, interns and secretaries about their work (they were usually the ones to pick me up from the main entrance to accompany me to the office); and small-talked with employees in their cigarette breaks in front of the building. Further, I attached great importance to writing detailed observation and interview protocols.

Keeping Access and Building Trust

Nevertheless, even when I finally had conducted some interviews, I quickly realized the doors close again very fast – if not immediately after every interview. Many times, the ethnographer passes an important hurdle when he or she finds a gatekeeper to the field. Having gained the trust of a person usually helps to get contacts to further persons, i.e. the ‘snowball-method’. Not so in this case.

The usual effort of networking when doing ethnography was boosted by a scent of mistrust from my field towards me. My research participants commonly inquired who I was, what I researched, why I was interested in this, what I aimed for, if I was in contact with journalists, with whom I had talked already, why I wanted to talk to them specifically, and especially because I had already talked to XY and so forth. I had to send research abstracts, they had to ask their superiors and both of us had to talk several times on the phone before it was possible to arrange a meeting. Every interview was a challenge but slowly I was evolving into an expert of the field, learning the language and key words necessary for positive responses and open doors. The strategy of keeping several entry points helped to let the slow but steady drop of drifting-in interviews continue flowing.

This mistrust was noticeable during the interviews as well. Often, I had to reinsure my research participants I do not work as a journalist and I would not quote them word-for-word. It is nothing special that research participants want to be exempt from being quoted on a certain statement. However, in this field, this request was usually articulated several times during every interview. One research participant for example did not allow me to audiotape our conversation, as he said, “One has to be careful in times of Ibiza” (a recent political scandal in Austrian politics concerning nepotism and corruption). Further, many of my interlocutors complained that the state-authority they work for is usually portrayed in an improper way by the media. The latter would merely focus on negative news and never display positive aspects about their work.

I learned that the difficulty of gaining access was related to the constant fear of bad press and being quoted out of context, rather than that my interviewees knowing things that have to be hidden from the public. At times, I felt sympathy for my research participants. I could relate to what they were saying and I got the impression that most of them just tried to accomplish their work properly. They knew the national rules and regulations well and tried their best to implement them in the most correct way. What startled me most was the degree of personal identification with the public opinion on the state-authority by its state-agents. Why were state-agents apparently taking responsibility for the national regulations they were implementing? And why did state-agents personally fear the bad press such implementations could provoke?

A Plea as a Final Note

I want to end this tale of my secretive field with a plea in my name and in the name of all researchers who plan to research state-authorities. State-agents, do not be afraid of ethnographers and social scientists! We have an academic work ethic (e.g. American Anthropological Association). We consider anonymity to be of utmost importance and we handle sensitive information with care. Social scientists are not journalists of sensational press. Let us cooperate and work together in order to understand the system and society we are living in a little better.

By |2020-12-09T12:05:54+00:00December 9th, 2020|PhD Conference|