Research Challenges

In the spring semester 2016, the workshop “Methodological and Ethical Challenges in Qualitative Research Projects” (May 10–11, 2016) took place at the University of Zurich, organized by Dorothea Lüddeckens and Nina Rageth.

Sofia Bollo

Take eleven doctoral candidates based in Switzerland, Germany and Armenia, who work in disciplines ranging from anthropology, study of religion, archaeology, museum studies, gender studies, and Islamic and Middle Eastern studies. Add three experts on qualitative research, Elisabeth Arweck (University of Warwick), Marta Trzebiatowska (University of Aberdeen), Aymon Kreil (University of Zurich). Weigh research doubts and mix them with the obstacles of doing fieldwork, making sure to be open for dialogue. The result is a fruitful context for analysing and discussing specific methodological and ethical challenges in qualitative research, with the goal of finding practical solutions to be applied in the respective doctoral projects.

The workshop started with a lecture by Elisabeth Arweck, who presented her vast expertise on qualitative research. Using examples from her own research projects, she offered her perspective and experience in dealing with important issues, such as finding a suitable object of research and facing challenges related to context. She also shared insights on methodological approaches, sample practices, path determination, gathering of participants and access to the field. Arweck also introduced the crucial discussion on ethics and on the emotional part of doing research.

Marta Trzebiatowska presented her biographic story during her qualitative research projects. Being of Polish origin and having studied Catholic Polish nuns for her doctoral dissertation, she identified several key issues with which a researcher is faced during the course of fieldwork. The issues she addressed were the vulnerability of a researcher in the field, the problem of being a ‘hostage’ of the field, and the difficulties in forming relationships with informants. Trzebiatowska described how she dealt with conditional access to her field and with the constant questioning of one’s own place in it, explaining how fieldwork is made up of power relations. There are good tools and methods for operating in the field. Yet lack of control, as well as emotional and physical vulnerability, are sometimes inevitable. From her past projects, she learned that developing a deeper understanding of the field can turn emotional hardship into greater reflexivity.

Aymon Kreil also shared his experiences on imbalanced power relations in the field of research. In addition, he explained how, during fieldwork, the researcher must occasionally make decisions within seconds, while still considering ethical issues, cultural appropriateness, and cultural politeness. He believed that every problem encountered during fieldwork has to be considered as element of study rather than as obstacle. When introduced to families of the deceased, for example, the difficulties of blending in the field is indeed part of the data to be collected.

To prepare for the workshop, doctoral researchers were asked to create a 10-minute presentation to address their own methodological challenges. The aim of these presentations was to clarify both for other participants and for ourselves our own research problems and failures. In an opposite trend against common tasks of presenting a research project at the best of it, in this session, the clearer you could set out your research complications, the more successful you were. This exercise was extremely important, since the goal of the workshop was not to generally discuss what kind of problems one might usually encounter in qualitative research, rather to collect and inductively organize actual problems raised by the PhD candidates and seek solutions to them. After the eleven presentations, an overwhelming amount of methodological difficulties emerged. However, the session ended with a reassuring awareness that, even if operating in different disciplines, researchers often face common problems in their projects.

The workshop’s second day started with a roundtable discussion, aimed to sum up and classify the various problems that had been identified the day before. The challenges were chronologically ordered along the usual research path, from the initial stage of fieldwork towards the final steps of the doctoral project. Using flip chart paper sheets, the workshop participants grouped research problems into several categories and subcategories. The six identified areas were the following: 1. covert/overt fieldwork; 2. the problem of inside/outside; 3. language barriers; 4. ethics; 5. data analysis; 6. dissemination/publication of data.

Discussing some categories of problems

In detail, the first category of problems named covert/overt fieldwork included challenges of the researcher’s behaviour during fieldwork, a back stage or front stage attitude, the gender issue, the topic of intrusive fieldwork, and rapport issue connected with sensitive problems. The inside/outside problem also dealt with fieldwork approaches, with doing anthropology at home and juggling aspects of the researcher’s identity, with blind spots, stress in the field, and cultural conventions. In the language barriers we discussed how to adapt and talk to different audiences during data collection, how to change the register of languages and how to face different understanding of particular terms or notions in data analysis and translation. The challenge of ethics focused on the ethical conventions in research, on ethics used as a defence set up by the field, on ethics as an excuse, on power imbalance between researchers and their interlocutors, and on the power of actors in the field. The data analysis category included a broad range of issues ranging from how to make sense of interview post-data collection, how to assess the weight and validity of collected data, how to deal with uneven data and different response rates, how to go about transcribing interviews, how to treat informal knowledge when e.g. a tape recorder is turned off during or after an interview, how to deal with non-verbal communication including emotions, as well as with secrets, rumours, and lies. In the dissemination/publication category we discussed the observance of data anonymity in the writing process, loyalties towards one’s interlocutors, whether and how to pay back participants, confidentiality, and finally publication issues in view of career perspectives.

After a detailed discussion pertaining to each of the challenges listed, the participants could choose one of the six categories of problems to focus on more deeply. An even closer and more intimate debate took place within smaller groups of students concerned with similar challenges. Sharing personal experiences and exchanging solutions was often eye-opening and informative for others facing similar questions. After the close discussion, each group had to choose two specific unsolved challenges within the category, which needed further discussion in the final roundtable. The most problematic issues were then re-addressed in the presence of the whole group and approached always with emphasis on linking the problem to the context of the specific research, to the project characteristics, and to the research questions. Everyone could eventually receive individual advice and practical tips on how to solve his or her problems and how to proceed in the doctoral project.

The final feedback discussion involved each participant feeling more confident and stronger in the previously problematic area. By honestly and openly sharing problems, it was possible to find solutions, and not just general ones, but personalized answers fashioned to the needs of the specific problems presented. The workshop ended with positive feelings. Each participant felt encouraged and incentivised, more confident in making decisions in his or her research and in combining methods with more awareness. Sitting down and reflecting together on research challenges proved to be very productive, more so than just praising positive achievements. But in the case of this workshop, success has to be fully acknowledged.

(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 6/2017, pp. 20–21)