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.
How have assisted voluntary return programmes developed and evolved over time in Europe?
Simona Schreier| PhD Candidate, Danube University Krems
What is return migration?
Return migrants are a diverse group that includes specific groups such as failed asylum seekers, migrants protected under temporary schemes, refugees after the termination of their asylum status, irregular immigrants, migrants with an expired temporary work permit, and legal migrants who aspire to return to their country of origin (EMN, 2007). On the policy level, return constitutes a central element of the EU migration management tool which has pushed for increased cooperation with third countries in the area of returns and readmission as one of the key political solutions in responding to what was framed as a refugee crisis in 2015 (Carrera, 2019). The return of unauthorised migrants, in particular, is seen as an important factor in the attempt to reduce irregular migration and as essential to the common EU migration and asylum policy, as well as the credibility of national policies (Flauhaux, 2017). The process for return can be instigated by either the migrant themselves or the host state. The host state determines the return options available to the migrant through their policies such as options for assisted voluntary return (AVR).
The situation in Europe
An increasing number of politicians across Europe implement antagonistic narratives towards irregular migrants and applaud swift removals as the solution to the problems brought by irregular migration (DeBono, 2016). Each EU member state has their own AVR programme in which they determine which migrants are eligible or not for participating in the programme. In other words, in one EU member state an individual may be eligible for AVR, but in a different member state they may not be eligible for a similar programme, due to differences in requirements for AVR. Each EU member state offers different AVR packages, so reintegration assistance may also differ. This has also led to views and policy concerns that asylum seekers may purposively shop for AVRR in countries which offer the highest financial packages. There is, however, no evidence to suggest that this is ever the case and research more commonly demonstrates that return is only viewed as an ultimate last resort of asylum and rejected asylum seekers (Kuschminder, 2017).These differences, nevertheless, highlight the lack of consistency across EU member states AVR policies.
There is no uniform, worldwide accepted definition of return migration and returnees, especially given that the term is often related with the (involuntary) return of rejected asylum seekers back to their home country. As Cassarino (2020) recently state the meaning of return migration has become so dominant in policy discourse that a reference to return implies a form of pressure or coercion utilised by the state and its law enforcement agencies.
In general, there is a greater need of putting in place monitoring and evaluation systems on a programmatic level to assess how successful an AVR and/or AVRR programme really can be. This would also permit to collect data into perhaps one database, which in turn would also permit to carry out comparative analysis. This is also based on the EU and the initiative, the Irregular Migration Management Application (IRMA), which is a restricted and secure information exchange platform developed by the European Commission which connects EU member and Schengen states, the European Commission, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) and the relevant EU funded programmes at operational and practitioner level. The aim is to facilitate the planning, organisation and implementation of return and readmission activities with the objective of making return procedures more effective (European Commission, 2017). And yet, we still don´t really know what the impact has been as this is not open to the public.
There would also be a further need to also concentrate on the policies in the country of origin as this is more often than not less known and less likely to be considered in a research. In order to have a more comprehensive view on return and reintegration it would also be important to understand the policies and the trends on return and reintegration in the country of origin and not just focus on Eurocentric policies. After all, it is important to understand the dynamics of return and reintegration, if the current programmes in place are to be successful. Academic studies are important, as they would then feed into policies of reintegration, which play a central role in supporting the returnees and facilitating their social, economic and cultural reintegration.
Finally, nowadays, we cannot ignore the impact the pandemic may have on migration and mobility in general. Thus, the question is: what does the future hold for return programmes in the current environment of pandemic? As Mananashvili (2020) recently stated, supporting countries of return in building up their health infrastructure and capacities of their relevant (health) institutions will be a powerful component for the success (or failure) of any genuine return partnership.
Government policy’s influence on attitudes
Akira Soto Nishimura| PhD Candidate, Danube University Krems
The idea that public opinion or attitude influences policy is largely an uncontroversial one. At least in democracies there is evidence policy makers pay some head to public attitudes. This makes sense given that politicians have to face the public at some point if they wish to be reelected. With regards to immigration, it has been found that both the preference and salience of immigration has an effect on immigration policy. A more controversial idea is that policy effects public opinion and attitudes. There are three mechanisms through which public policy could affect public attitudes. The first is through direct experience with a policy such as when a person applies for unemployment benefits, they gain direct experience with unemployment policies. Good experiences will lead to more positive attitudes towards the policy and bad experiences have a negative effect. The second mechanism is exposure which states that the longer citizens interact with a particular policy or institution, the more ‘comfortable’ they become. The third mechanism, signaling, is like exposure but is more related to norm signaling of elites. There is evidence that national policies effect attitudes on issues such as smoking, health care, welfare. These effects when found tend to be modest in size. Immigration policy differs from the above issues, as most non-immigrants will not interact directly with immigration policy. This lack of experience with immigration policy means that if immigration policy does affect attitudes towards immigrants it would be through exposure and signaling. There is support for policy affecting attitude largely through norm signaling. Studies on gay rights have found support for this effect. What influences (anti) immigrant attitudes? Studies have often focused on individual factors and have found that lower levels of education and lower labor markets skill are a strong predictor for anti-immigrant attitudes. Research on labor market policies have found evidence for an effect on anti-immigrant attitudes whereas support has not been found that welfare policies have as similar effect. There have been a handful of studies focusing on immigration policy. Two studies, one looking at the USA and the other Europe, found that immigration policy and political climate during one’s early adulthood effects attitudes towards immigrants later in life. In terms of the immediate effects of policy on attitudes one study in Israel found only a weak effect, a stronger effect was found in the UK and Ireland, while an effect on behavior but not attitudes was found in Arizona, USA. In Sweden, an effect between policy and attitude was found once media visualization was taken into account. Beyond the public’s attitude, there is evidence from the USA that national policy effects local officials in their behaviors and attitudes. There is the concern that pro-immigration (or anti-immigration) policies create a backlash leading to increase in voting for populist voting however, there is little evidence to support this claim, at least in Europe. The anti-immigrant rhetoric of political figures appears to have an effect in increasing anti-immigrant attitudes of the public but these effects are short-lived. The rise of populist parties within Europe have often been linked to rises in anti-immigrant attitudes however, the evidence suggests the more important factor is the political activation of pre-existing opposition immigration. Instead of looking at overall attitude, one study looked at how integration policies effected perception of economic and cultural threat. The results suggested that more inclusive integration policies were correlated with lower perceptions of economic threat and had no effect along the cultural dimension. If public attitudes affect policy and policy affects public attitudes, then there is a feedback effect. One of the main theories in the public opinion/attitude and policy literature is the thermostatic model, which posits that the public behaves like a thermostat as they respond to increasingly liberal policies by becoming more conservative, and vice-versa. These changes in public opinion then inform the political system. Thus, opinion and policy are reciprocally causal, they feed back on each other. This model has most often been used in policies where there is a clear output such as money spent on welfare. While not originally conceived for policies without such a direct output, it is still used. Studies that measure this feedback between policy and attitudes are scarce as the data required for this analysis is rare. Large-scale surveys on attitudes tend not to be longitudinal. There are statistical methods that can estimate the feedback effect without longitudinal data. The simultaneous feedback model (SFM) is one such model. My research will use SFM to help shed light on the feedback effect between immigration policy and (anti) immigrant attitudes.