Now with all Commonhealth projects well under way, and my involvement with a consortium project, a discussion arose between researchers regarding the way in which we conduct interviews within social enterprises.
How much do we really learn from formal interviews? Those types that you sit down and ask listed questions while that scary little Dictaphone sits there on the table, and you can almost in many cases see the fear flit across the participants face and the little bricks start to go up behind the eyes, as if it’s some sort of test or interrogation. Or when a participant picks up the phone and briefly after introduction hangs up, as that is very simple to do.(This usually only happens if a full dialogue has not been instigated beforehand and the researcher has not spent informal, but valuable, time within the organisation).
Individuals can be ‘guarded’ with the information that you gather and although explained, signed and consented feel that the information they provide may actually be used unethically, or that their honesty might end up back to the ‘wrong’ people. So how can we decrease this stigma of talking to interviewers and increase participation in research projects?
As a researcher in the social enterprise sector I have experienced this uncertainty and caution from interview participants, and I am sure I am not alone. The cultures of social enterprises are vastly different than those of private organisations and it can be argued that a different research approach, perhaps more informal is indeed needed, and could be far more effective.
An undervalued and underutilised question that can actually not only change perceptions, but gain access, rapport and relax a participant is simply ‘do you fancy a cuppa tea?’ Social enterprises are busy organisations, usually with minimum staff and finding the time for interviews (particularly if planned in advance) can be difficult. Everyone has time for tea. The informal setting facilitates a more relaxed interview and you’re not really seen as a researcher but as an interested party of the organisation (obviously no matter what role, you still are, but again, perception).
Scheduling interviews, in particular with social enterprises in rural areas where researchers have to travel to, can be problematic, it would be great to go up for a day and have one interview after the other scheduled, get them done and go. But how much are we actually learning from this? You want the organisations to stay on board, to work in partnership and collaboratively with academics, and this just would not build the rapport needed to create a long lasting relationship.
To be able to keep an open communication with social enterprises, becoming embedded in the organisation is not that far-fetched, by playing a part in their everyday activities it allows for easier access, more natural and accurate answers and observations, including introductions to people that under other circumstances you would not have had the opportunity to meet. The ability just to show commitment to the organisation and genuine interest breaks down the researcher/public barrier to an extent, and comfortability really is crucial in interviewing participants and staff as it will provide you with much richer data.
As a part of this piece I looked at the terminology ‘ethical stalking’ as this is what this form of integration could be perceived as. It sounds terrible as if researchers are out in trees with their binoculars monitoring social enterprises around the country. But in fact ‘ethical stalking’ is really just networking and particularly within the social enterprise sector the power of networking should never be underestimated. It opens so many doors and provides extensive opportunities. By getting to know social enterprises the knowledge gathered provides far more value than traditional interviewing techniques.
So what I would say is never underestimate the data you can gather from ‘hanging out’ and drinking tea. (Don’t tell the supervisors).