Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

The Challenges of Fieldwork: When Things Don’t Go According to Plan



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2 Minutes

A few weeks ago we at Border Criminologies breezily announced that three members would shortly be commencing fieldwork. To date, only one of us has actually been allowed to start, while another, pending security clearance, is hoping to begin next week. The third has no idea when, or indeed, if, her project will continue. Having conducted some interviews and administered surveys, it appears to be on hiatus.

Delays, confusion, frustration, and miscommunication are part and parcel of applied research. They are, however, rarely discussed. Perhaps they seem too obvious? Maybe researchers worry about alienating gatekeepers? Or, is it that we do not want to appear incompetent, preferring instead to pretend that all is going according to plan?

In her previous research in immigration removal  centres (IRCs) in the UK, Mary Bosworth was fortunate to be granted generous access across as many IRCs as she could manage to visit. This open invitation, however, did not mean she was immune from setbacks.  Her fieldnotes are full of examples.

Early on the research project:

Arrived, no arrangements made. Put in library, not ideal, need to ask for other space. (November 2009)

Nearly a year later:

Today I was written up on a ‘security incident report,’ by a staff member I’ve been trying to interview for weeks, because I forgot my name tag. Not good. (November 2010)

Near the end:

Staff at gatehouse said not a single member of SMT there or UKBA. So nobody knew who I was. I had to leave. (April 2011)

Problems like these can have a number of causes. Sometimes they reflect institutional resistance. Just like informed consent, research access needs to be continually sought and obtained. At other times they reveal institutional cultures and difficulties. In the era of austerity, budget cuts have reduced staffing levels and pay, meaning that staff at the gatehouse may, in fact, not know who a researcher is, if they are new to their post, and the information has not been adequately shared. Or, they may not have time to assist.

Above all, setbacks remind us of our own positionality as researchers. We are always already privileged yet dependent and vulnerable. When our work occurs in highly politicised and complex institutions like IRCs and prisons, our weaknesses may be more evident. Applied research requires patience and creativity, particularly as barriers to access often emerge unexpectedly and at inopportune times.

It’s important to discuss the challenges of fieldwork, not only to strategize about how to manage them, but also in order to think them through. It’s very easy to feel entitled to access. And it’s extremely frustrating to arrive at the gates and be denied entry. Yet, we ask a lot of those who allow us into their lives and into their workplaces.  Considered in this light, set backs, delays and frustrations provide an opportunity to reflect on broader, deeper concepts, like power and responsibility, as well as the goals and justification of our research.  They may also provide an opportunity to be creative, a reminder to forge new research pathways and modes of access, and a moment to consider what we may bring to those who work with us.

As usual with our self-reflexive posts, we end this entry by encouraging you to continue this discussion and share your experiences with us. What sorts of challenges in access have you encountered when doing fieldwork? How did you overcome these barriers?  Please post a comment here, email us, or post on our Facebook page. You can also tweet us.


How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Border Criminologies (2013) The Challenges of Fieldwork: When Things Don’t Go According to Plan. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/the-challenges-of-fieldwork/ (Accessed [date]).


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