The problem of gaining access can provide important insights into the nature and organization of the social setting under study. In what ways can issues influence the outcome of ethnographic research? What strategies can researchers adopt to overcome obstacles to access?
‘Ethnography is branch of anthropology which has aided social researchers in the quest for a deeper understanding of different societies, social groups or cultures’ (Hammersely, 1995p365). The purpose this essay is to gain an insight into the problems that researchers encounter when the try to gain access to certain fields they wish to investigate. There are many obstacles associated with this research approach and invariably can impact on the outcome of the research. My essay will outline the key features of ethnography and the challenges that greet the researcher as the go about conducting their research. We will focus mainly on the problems related to access, how these challenges are approached and the tactics that are used to overcome these difficulties. ‘The access negotions can be construed as involving multiple views of what is profane and what is open to investigation vs. What is sacred or taboo and closed to investigation unless the appropriate respectful stance is assumed’ Barbara Stein The qualitative research method is a particular useful for acquiring knowledge on why specific groups act the way they do. Researchers are not interested in how often people use illegal drugs or how often people visit sex shops but instead why people do what they do! What is their motivation? And do they think their behaviour is acceptable or unacceptable within their own social setting, it is for this reason that gaining access to certain social settings can prove difficult. Hammersely and Atkinson have revealed this to us in the form of two social settings. These can be simply categorised as “open” and “closed” (Byrman, 2008, p403). Open social settings are generally institutions or organizations such as schools or firms while on the other hand ‘Closed’ social settings are associated with groups like gangs and criminals. For research to take place in a closed social setting the ethnographer will sometimes go undercover or in ‘covert manner’ often in disguise in order to fit in with their research subjects. By using this method members of that group are less likely to change their behaviour and a true picture of the situation can be observed. Obviously taking notes is a no-no. The researcher also has to rely on memory and this can have a negative impact on the accuracy of their research findings. Covert research also requires a lot of careful planning and patience and can also be extremely dangerous when dealing with criminal elements. This can be seen in Wolf’s study of ‘Harley tribe’. In this situation he disguised himself as a biker, customized his bike and took on the persona of a fully fleged biker so he could become involved with this group (Hammersley and Atkinson, (1995 p57-58). He lacked patience and asked too many questions when he met several members of the Kings Crew MC in a motorcycle shop. The members of that group became increasingly suspicious and distrustful of him, even though he looked the part. In the end he was forced to approach another group of bikers (Hammersley and Atkinson (1995 p58). This illustrates that the possibility of gaining access can be easily delayed in the primary stages of research. When researchers decide to take the covert route, they must ensure long term and stable access to a social setting for their ethnographic research. A lot of ‘outside observation’ must take place in order to know what behaviour is accetable in certain social circles so that they fit in. This is essential to ensure that the results of the research provide a clear picture of the social group. “lose lips, sink ships” Once the researcher has gained access It is important that an interviewer remains impartial and...
Bibliography: Bryman, Alan (2008) Social Research Methods (third edition), Oxford: Oxford University Press
Hammersley, M. and Atkinson, P. (1995) Ethnography: Principles in Practice, London:
Atkinson, P. and Hammersley, M. (2003) ‘ Ethnography and Participant Observation’ in N.K.
Qualities Research [online] available at http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/viewArticle/1131/2517 accessed at 17 March 2011
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