WS Methodological and Ethical Challenges in Qualitative Research Projects (Zurich, 10-11.5.2016)

Convenors: Dorothea Lüddeckens and Nina Rageth

Report by 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 two external experts on qualitative research, Elisabeth Arweck (University of Warwick), Marta Trzebiatowska (University of Aberdeen). 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. Dr. 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 relationship with informants. Marta 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. 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. After the eleven presentations, an overwhelming amount of methodological difficulties emerged.

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.

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. Sitting down and reflecting together on research challenges proved to be very productive, more so than just praising positive achievements. In contrast, in the case of this workshop success has to be fully acknowledged.