Research at the wild frontier
Steve Lacey is no stranger to the world of crack cocaine, sex workers and drug dealers – and can take the client there, too
Within the UK there are a whole group of people who live in social deprivation. These individuals are often born and live out their lives in conditions of extreme poverty. Sometimes it's convenient to think of these individuals in terms only of social problems, for example teenage parenthood, drugs, crime, sex work, obesity and alcoholism. Their lives are a million miles away from the cosy café culture of Primrose Hill or Richmond; a culture that we in research often frequent and enjoy.
Yet those who are socially disadvantaged are a very important segment of society. They matter because if we want a better world, one with a closer equilibrium between all groups and fewer of these social problems, then we need to understand the lives of those who are constantly surrounded by barriers that limit their potential.
To really understand these people's lives we need to listen and understand their viewpoints. This is often a difficult task because their lives and values are often miles away from our comfort zone. Most people are good at understanding people who are like them. When we talk to people who are like ourselves it is easy to get a connection, to re-frame what they are saying in the context of our own personal experience and we understand the cultural nuances involved.
In international research we have cracked this issue. When we conduct research in France or Russia we do not use English moderators but native facilitators. Why? Because ultimately these people understand the cultural codes of their country. So why do we not adopt this approach when we conduct research with the so called "hard to reach" audiences (i.e. those who are more socially disadvantaged)?
I found this failure to use specialists creates problems, which break down into four clear areas:
Firstly: We often get the wrong people.
Most recruiters are middle class and, like it or not, they recruit from their own network lists. This causes a problem when they recruit "hard to reach" audiences, as these people don't sign up to these lists. The result is that researchers get the wrong type of people for groups (e.g. you might ask for estate kids but get the sons of plumbers).
Secondly: We're a world apart.
Most researchers are middle class. Therefore the way they dress, talk and think is a million miles away from "hard to reach" audiences. This causes a problem as it means they often fail to connect with their audiences, resulting in respondents who either don't open up properly or tell the researcher what they want to hear.
Thirdly: We take the wrong approach.
Often researchers will use the wrong methodology. For instance, they will use groups when ethnography would be most appropriate, or the wrong stimulus, or no pre—tasks.
Fourthly: A lack of cultural context.
This is the most important problem. Unless you are constantly immersed in this world, you can't really get a good understanding of what is going on in it, so alien is it to you. It is because of the above reasons that I decided to specialise in researching the working class and "hard to reach" audiences. My ambition was to change the way we research these audiences, and two advertising agencies — Farm and Leith — saw fit to back me in this endeavour.
Obviously, a different approach was needed to overcome the problems listed above:
1. The recruiter problem:
The solution proved to be a network of UK recruiters who, because of their proximity to hard to reach audiences, have become invaluable in reaching them. These recruiters often live on council estates and just needed training up.
2. The problem of feeling a world apart:
My own background meant that I came from a similar world to the audiences that I research. I was brought up on a council estate in Feltham so this background knowledge, plus eight years of experience in researching these audiences (and two years as a strategic planner specialising in communications to hard to reach audiences), meant that I found it very easy to relate to them and understood where they were coming from.
3. The right approach:
Using the best approach for the task is key, which often entails using ethnography as opposed to traditional research. This can take the form of hanging out with estate kids or drug dealers over a few days or a whole week. In situations where traditional research is needed (e.g. due to cost issues or a client requires a quick turnaround), double depths are often required. This is where you do two separate depths with the same person. The first is to find out about their lives and get them to trust you. You then set them some tasks before the follow-up depths, in which you talk about the issues at hand. It's often best to have as much visual and task based stimulus as possible, as these audiences often find it very hard to articulate in words.
4. Cultural context:
A monthly monitor of this audience, and discussions with them and experts (e.g. youth workers, drug councillors, etc.), performs a dual task: helping to improve my understanding of it, and keeping my knowledge of changing trends and attitudes current. The work is diverse but engaging. It has led to researching prisoners, crack cocaine and heroin users, drug dealers, football hooligans, estate kids, graffiti artists, transsexuals, Eastern Europeans, Bangladeshi Youths, benefit fraudsters, sex workers, people with disabilities, BNP party members and domestic abusers.
A different approach to research is both challenging and rewarding but I also enjoy the fact that, potentially, what I do could change people's lives for the better.
This article was first published in InBrief magazine, July 2009
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2009