Consider the challenges in conducting qualitative research, such as risk and danger in conducting fieldwork, multicultural and multilingual settings, and limited resources.
Various qualitative research methods offer significant interpretative value and produce culturally rich analyses (Blake, 2020), but it doesn’t come without their risks and challenges. Qualitative research in a global or international context introduces additional risks and challenges, especially when considering multicultural and multilingual settings as cultural differences.
Qualitative researchers enter a new location as an outsider. This status doesn’t change regardless of how well-acquainted the researcher becomes with the community (IQR Toolkit, 2021). When conducting research in a violent setting, these risks and dangers become more prominent.
One of the most important considerations and challenges involves guaranteeing the privacy and anonymity of participants in a dangerous space and protecting vulnerable groups, including those susceptible to gender discrimination (Blake, 2020). Researchers must consider surveillance and time of interviews when planning interviews in dangerous environments.
Blake emphasizes the importance of minimizing all participants’ risks to personal safety (2020). Failure to understand the local culture and follow these guidelines could introduce life-threatening repercussions from violent agents in the space (state, gang culture, or other).
Askanius (2019) introduces a critical question that all researchers should use throughout the process — why and for whom are we producing research on these groups, and what ethical considerations and problems related to intent could arise?
While speaking about the dangerous spaces in Latin American and Caribbean countries, Blake (2020) points to political turbulence and state-led violence, gang culture due to the drug trade, and violence within communities due to poor economic circumstances and weak leadership. As an outsider entering this space, it is essential to have a gatekeeper who can navigate the spaces, increase trust, and serve as a buffer to cultural conflict.
Environmental factors can reduce accessibility to research sites for fieldwork. For example, Blake describes how Jill (a pseudonym) had difficulty accessing a site due to military presence, which interfered with her research objectives and schedule (2020). Accessibility is also impacted by gang violence and language barriers.
In other instances, environmental health risks can also present a risk and challenge when conducting fieldwork. Sonia Richter discusses weather, roads, and even health risks (such as the Ebola outbreak) impacting safety when conducting fieldwork in Ghana. Looking at international health guidelines helps navigate this challenge (IQR Toolkit, 2021).
Cultural and identity considerations
Finally, it is important to note that the researcher’s identity impacts fieldwork processes and safety in the field. While a gatekeeper helps soften the clash of cultures or languages, there is usually an element of distrust when an outsider enters the environment. This level of distrust may vary depending on the race, culture, ethnicity, age, and gender of the researcher.
Blake reveals how distrust is experienced through both familiarity and unfamiliarity. For example, Blake’s identity as a dark-skinned Jamaican man allowed him to connect with research participants. However, it also introduced skepticism as the participants were suspicious that he worked for the government or a law enforcement agency (2020).
Alternatives to fieldwork?
There is the option to use video conferencing to facilitate focus groups for qualitative data collection. However, there are significant challenges and limitations, even in ideal situations where participants are adept with technology and have the necessary resources (Greenspan et al., 2021). For example, poor connection, high attrition rate, and inability to read body language.
- Askanius, T. (2019). Studying the Nordic Resistance Movement: Three urgent questions for researchers of contemporary neo-Nazis and their media practices. Media, Culture & Society 41, 6, 878–888.
- Blake, D.K. (2020). Researching violence: Conducting risky fieldwork in dangerous spaces across Latin America and the Caribbean. Journal of Ethnographic & Qualitative Research 14, 153–169.
- Greenspan, S.B., Gordon, K.L., Whitcomb, S.A., and Lauterbach, A.A. (2021). Use of video conferencing to facilitate focus groups for qualitative data collection. American Journal of Qualitative Research 5, 1, 85-93.
- IQR Toolkit (November 18, 2021). Conducting Qualitative Research in an International Context. [Video]. YouTube https://youtu.be/teMrM32vpSo