Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Expectations and Realities of Fieldwork by a Nascent Qualitative Researcher



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4 Minutes

Guest Post by Dr Brandy Cochrane. Brandy is a lecturer and researcher in criminology at Deakin University. Her current research focuses specifically on the impact of border securitisation on refugee and asylum-seeking mothers. Her research and teaching interests include surveillance, gender, migration, security, methods, critical and queer studies. This is the seventh instalment of Border Criminologies’ themed series, which includes short posts based on chapters from the book 'Criminal Justice Research in an Era of Mass Mobility', edited by Andriani Fili, Synnøve Jahnsen and Rebecca Powell. 

Coming to the conclusion in my book chapter ‘Expectations and realities of fieldwork by a nascent qualitative researcher’, in Criminal Justice Research in an Era of Mass Mobility', that researchers must be prepared to navigate the unknowable is all well and good, but how can experienced researchers mitigate the consequences of the unknowable for those new to it? Especially as there is evidence that methods literature around qualitative research attempts to universalise or minimise the issues that arise in research (e.g. Griffin; Smith)

In an open and honest account of awkward moments, feelings of inadequacy and struggles in research, this blog post based on my book chapter, focuses on the challenges that are part of the process of fieldwork, specifically with marginalised, mobile women. Drawing on my experiences with refugee and asylum-seeking mothers from Iran and Afghanistan, I have organised the blog post into three phases of my qualitative research project about everyday security and motherhood: Access and Recruitment, Participants and Interviews and Interpreters.

Access and Recruitment

Based on methodological qualitative literature around snowball sampling (Cohen & Arieli; Jaconsen & Landau; Noy; Sommers), I reasoned that a strategy of recruitment for participants that included flyers, website posts, and verbal communication, distributed with the assistance of refugee and migrant support organisations, would be sufficient for attracting a significant number of refugee and asylum-seeking mothers.

However, the reality of recruitment was quite different. My overly simplistic idea of hanging posters and waiting for calls to come in was based on literature that did not describe the challenges and power dynamics that exist within groups and organisations. Therefore, in the midst of recruitment, I needed to change my methodological approach to build trust with gatekeepers first.

Through building relationships and conducting informal interviews, I met ten gatekeepers of whom three allowed me to recruit participants from within their English language courses and mothers’ groups. After I received access to these spaces, I was able to follow in the ethnographic process of ‘being there’ and engaging with possible participants to encourage their participation in the research (Sixsmith, Boneham & Goldring). Gaining access to women’s everyday lives can be difficult, and the slow building of trust in the weekly mothers’ group or near the snack table at the English-language group was sometimes awkward, but the process highlighted the patience required for qualitative research with marginalised populations.

Participants and Interviews

The life-story narrative method is a type of qualitative, in-depth interview that moves beyond question and response and uses everyday conversation, especially storytelling and listening (Adriansen; Bamberg; Bauer & Gaskell). Reflecting upon my interviewing methods, I realised that the life-story narrative approach was neither straightforward nor universal in its results and was instead dependent on the participants. For example, the majority of the Iranian women with whom I spoke had no problems guiding the interviews based on their experiences due to their involvement with the asylum process. Often the stories were chronological and detailed and were presented in a format that fits the idea of a life-story narrative and its goals. This is not to say that these stories were told without emotion or struggle on the part of the women.

On the other hand, the majority of Afghan women with whom I spoke preferred a question-and-answer format for the interview. The difference in format may be due to multiple factors, but perhaps most obvious was that the majority of them did not have to tell their stories during an asylum process and had not told their narratives outside of private spaces. At first, this was difficult to navigate, as I just had basic prompts prepared. The answers proved to be short and simple, even with additional prompts to discuss experiences.

Also, my own discomfort and fear of abuse of power hindered mothers from giving their full narratives, as it made some of them uncomfortable or suspicious of my motives. Despite understanding that sensitive issues would emerge during interviews, I didn’t have the tools to navigate some of the issues without visible discomfort. My fear of abuse of my powerful position to gain details that mothers were not comfortable giving, paired with using my interview structure to move past difficult topics for the participants and myself, was a double-edged sword, which had an impact on my interviews. I was silencing the voices of women that I intended centre for my own comfort.


After canvassing the options, budgetary concerns, and flexibility around interview times and spaces, it became clear that a professional interpreter was not a viable option, so I decided to rely on my contacts within the organizations who worked with women for referrals of trusted interpreters.

To ignore the place and role of the interpreter before, during, and after the interview would signify misunderstanding the importance of reflexivity within qualitative research. As Edwards argues, it is important to consider the interpreter as a key informant in the research. Despite this understanding, there were specific challenges and benefits around interpreters that were unexpected.

One of the challenges I faced with all the interpreters at different points was that at times I could tell that the interpreter was changing the participants’ stories. In other cases, I would receive one or two sentences after long-winded soliloquys. When I tried to follow up, I was often told that it didn’t translate well. There could be several reasons, including limited language skills or fatigue of interpreters, especially during multiple interviews.

However, these challenges should not undermine the significance of interpreters during interviewing situations. I received so many benefits from engaging interpreters of similar backgrounds. The importance of the cultural mediation that occurred in the interviews around religion, practices, and issues in home countries was immense. The interpreters also unveiled how my own actions also affected the participants’ reactions to the interview process (Griffin; Smith).


In the chaper, I wrote an open and honest account of my struggles in hopes that it will support other qualitative researchers. The work can assist in understanding the challenges that may arise when navigating work with marginalised populations, specifically in the realms of recruitment and access, narrative interviewing, and interpreters. These challenges and the experiences of conducting research in an era of mass mobility are essential in expanding our methodological understanding of enquiry with women on the move and more specifically with refugee and asylum-seeking women.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Cochrane, B. (2019) Expectations and Realities of Fieldwork by a Nascent Qualitative Researcher. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2019/01/expectations-and (Accessed [date])

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