The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

Its best to be prepared

Anne-Marie McDermott highlights why self-awareness is key when conducting fieldwork, and the importance of basic self-defence

Off-site qualitative research is often a solitary occupation. Execs may visit respondents’ homes or unfamiliar venues where they could find themselves in vulnerable situations.

Researchers usually know little about the person they’re due to meet, other than basic information from a screening questionnaire. Interviews, meanwhile, are held at a place and time often predetermined to suit respondents.

In some social research projects there may be even greater risks involved. The brief could be linked to crime and substance abuse, with interviews taking place in more deprived areas.

We might find ourselves in remote villages or unkempt houses, dealing with respondents who are clearly ‘under the influence’. Sometimes there’s nothing specific to make you feel wary, just a feeling that something isn’t quite right.

Research agencies do take certain practical steps to manage the logistics of fieldwork where possible. They use local recruiters with local knowledge, plan screening questionnaires carefully and select neutral venues as and when viable. Yet despite all this, we can still feel vulnerable and exposed at times.

Recent experience, while thankfully not leading to serious incidents, has encouraged us to put all our qualitative execs through self-defence training. The aim was to ensure that they work as safely as possible and are better able to look after themselves in difficult situations.

Deane Musharbash, a highly experienced self-defence coach, who has adapted certain martial arts techniques to make them more relevant for work-based situations, led the course.

Going into strangers’ homes when their visit is expected is a major issue in field research. Deane’s starting point was self-awareness, talking research execs through a series of possible scenarios and discussing how they could be overcome or — better still — avoided. Most involved common sense. Locking the door once a researcher is inside is not unusual, but also removing the keys might well be suspicious.

Deane then illustrated several simple but highly effective techniques to counter threats on an increasingly serious scale. She started with verbal skills and voice power, moving onto body language and finally physical action, stressing that this should only be used as a last resort. She offered solutions based around everyday items, like carrying a newspaper or umbrella to use in self-defence if necessary.

Other personal safety measures were also highlighted. CRISIS, for example, is a telephone system that allows execs to ‘log on’ in uncomfortable situations. It calls back on a regular basis to check on researchers’ safety and alerts someone automatically if unanswered.

Advice is available from several organisations, with the Suzy Lamplugh Trust the leading authority on personal safety. It provides a range of training courses and other resources relevant to the research industry and life in general. The MRS website also has a link to ‘Health and Safety Guidelines for Face to Face Interviewers’ drafted by the Interviewer Quality Control Scheme (IQCS).

Our course, although containing a serious message, was designed to be fun and a break from the daily routine. It’s not everyday that our execs find themselves face to face with a Second Dan in Aikido and Aikijitsu, or our more elfin execs practicing hand holds that had our ‘big strong boys’ rolling about on the floor!

Finally, some top safety tips. Always:

  • Check around and inside your car before entering

  • When entering someone's home ensure that they don't lock the door and remove the key

  • Be aware of your surroundings; look for a handy object to use in self defence if you feel threatened

  • Appear confident — if you act like a victim you’ll become a victim

  • Choose hot drinks over cold ones to avoid risk from so-called ‘date rape’ drugs

  • Confirm with others where you are and who you’re with

  • If a situation starts to feel dangerous, do a ring back on your phone — pretend someone has called you and you need to go

  • Stay calm at if you feel you are in danger

 

Anne-Marie McDermott
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2004