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the challenges of in-depth interviewing with disadvantaged respondents joan walling The sociologist Deirdre Royster recently observed that “even the most carefully designed study cannot anticipate the obstacles—perhaps more gingerly described as surprises—of the ‹eld or ‘real world’” (2003, 44). In fact, it seems safe to say that the one thing a researcher can count on in ‹eld research is that few things will go as planned. When teaching qualitative research methods to undergraduates, I stress the fact that one cannot start a project too early—yet every semester students are surprised and frustrated when their projects are delayed by countless canceled interviews, late respondents, and sometimes even populations who simply cannot be contacted for study. “If I have this much dif‹culty contacting a college football coach, how am I supposed to believe that anyone really does interviews with an even harder to reach population?” Shea, a senior sociology major, asked me one day. “What are some strategies I can use to get the attention of that football coach?” It is no secret that some populations are harder to reach than others, and in fact some of the groups that are most interesting to social scientists are the least accessible. With impoverished populations in particular becoming less “visible” to the everyday observer (Newman 1999), researchers 78 struggle to gain access to, for example, single mothers working multiple jobs, people too poor to own a phone, or young urban men who live with extended family. The problem of access is one that has been discussed by numerous researchers, but there is little consensus on a dependable, overarching strategy (Lo›and and Lo›and 1995, 22–28). Sometimes researchers simply accept their limitations—those who conduct telephone survey research, for example, have to resign themselves to the fact that they will not be able to include the perspectives of populations without a telephone . However, more often than not, a researcher can eventually put together a reasonable sample, and even learn from unexpected limitations or changes to the plan (Royster 2003, 44). Once respondents are contacted, research dif‹culties do not necessarily wane—disadvantaged populations also require a certain amount of knowledge and sensitivity if researchers are to bridge the cultural gap between their own research-centered culture and that of a population both unfamiliar with research and in a strained relationship with authority more generally. In this way, the challenge Shea faced with his university’s football coach was not really so different from the challenge that another researcher might experience with disadvantaged populations—both respondents must be convinced that the researcher is trustworthy and that his or her project is important enough to warrant a sacri‹ce of the respondent’s valuable time. As researchers, we depend on our respondents for our success and must interact with them effectively to ensure that we not only get the data we need but treat them with sensitivity and respect. My dissertation research draws on in-depth interviews conducted by myself and others in 2001–2 with 166 low-income respondents receiving aid from various sources. The sample included people from diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds, as well as non-English speakers. In this chapter I describe that research experience in order to highlight issues and concerns that many researchers face as they gather qualitative data from disadvantaged populations. I also discuss some of the challenges of establishing trust with disadvantaged respondents, particularly when addressing sensitive personal topics. While this chapter is based primarily on my dissertation research, my broader research interests have brought me into contact with several disadvantaged populations and various sensitive interview topics (such as religion or money—or in some cases, both), and so this chapter also draws on experiences I gained in the course of other academic research projects and during my brief stint as a nonacademic researcher. The Challenges of In-Depth Interviewing • 79 the research project Let me begin by describing in some detail the research project from which I will draw most of my conclusions in this chapter. The three years of research that were the focus of my graduate work centered on how care is received and interpreted differently depending on who gives it. I studied respondents who had recently received some kind of aid from religious , governmental, or community-based social service agencies. My respondents were drawn almost entirely from low-income populations. My research addressed the question of self-worth and how it is experienced and negotiated by those who...


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