Sasheenie Moodley // Some argue that ethnographic data collection, during fieldwork, sounds as easy as “picking apples from a tree” (Polkinghorne, 2005:141). In other words, research information regarding participants’ life experiences is ripe and ready for the taking. Yet this is not always the case. Seeking understanding in work with vulnerable participants is less about “collecting” information, and more about “constructing” stories as a storyteller interacts with a listener (McLeod, 2001:138). Construction grants both storyteller and listener “active” roles in the way a story is told (Riessman, 2014:3). As such, I must be prepared to ask the storyteller to elaborate, or wait in silence when “more can be said” (Riessman, 2014:3). I believe stories and meaning are awarded – not easily picked, like apples. Gatekeepers are kingpins during this construction process. Trust is crucial to gain access to or “enter” participants’ experiences through “gatekeepers” (Ely et al., 2003). They not only help us meet participants and shape how participants interact with us. Gatekeepers also help shape our understanding of the “social facts” at our field site (Durkheim, 1982, 1966. In my experience, gatekeepers influenced how participants interacted with me just as much as my privilege did.
In this article, I suggest that gatekeepers not only guard the gates we desire, but also unlock gates we did not yet know about.
The ethics approval process is arguably where most of us initially identify our “gatekeepers” (Ely et al., 2003:20,23). During my DPhil fieldwork, I aimed to explore how HIV-positive teenage mothers experience HIV and pregnancy in South Africa. The participants with whom I worked were therefore HIV-positive, pregnant teenagers. Teenagers – young people under twenty years old – are considered an ethically vulnerable research group. HIV-positive women are equally vulnerable. Pregnant women are especially vulnerable too. My DPhil research is therefore situated at the intersection where three vulnerable groups meet. As such, the ethics approval process for my research was, understandably, rigorous. I worked with a number of people. I thus learned how to identify, and actively negotiate access with, gatekeepers even before I arrived at my field site (Ely et al., 2003:20,23). Some individuals helped me submit my research proposal timeously. Others were mentors in my department who discussed my protocols at monthly meetings. Like most other researchers, I shared my research protocol with supervisors, department, university, public health authority at my field site, regional public health authority, and national public health authority. Yes, many hands sifted my research protocol through numerous checklists and objectives. As I prepared to start fieldwork, however, I knew I had a strong team of thought-leaders supporting my proposed work. Regardless of role, I believe that each person aimed to make my research methods better, safer, and more effective. These individuals were not, as I imagined, the last gatekeepers I would meet.
In the field, I quickly learned that I would need to work alongside a new team of gatekeepers. These were community leaders – nurses – at my field site. They agreed to teach me the best ways to recruit and interact with pregnant teenagers. Without their permissions, I could not access the teenagers. More than this, however, I felt grateful for their guidance. Some nurses took an interest in my research. Thus, even beyond their work in the clinic, they opened doors to other community leaders who could further my own limited reach. One nurse took me to meet with a district authority. I had no idea that his approval would be required four months later. This was a gate I could not foresee. As such, I thought my gatekeepers in the field only strived to guard gates. I slowly saw, however, that they were unlocking new gates for me.
It was not only during the recruitment stage that gatekeepers mentored and guided me. As my analysis started, I discussed my observations and initial writings with the same nurses. Their insights were rooted in decades of experience with primary healthcare. Collaborating with the nurses gifted me a holistic understanding of what it meant to live in my field site.
Please do not misunderstand me. Relationships with gatekeepers are not always supportive, mutually respectful, or symbiotic. In fact, in the last week of my fieldwork, a new gatekeeper prevented me from hosting a support group in one of the clinic’s rooms. This reminded how fragile fieldwork relationships can be. I was lucky, I realised, to be mentored by some gatekeepers – if not all. They chose me. These gatekeepers believed I had something valuable to offer. I was grateful, of course, yet acutely aware of the responsibility that came with their trust. I carry this responsibility even beyond my fieldwork as I maintain these relationships.
It is tempting to believe that all gatekeepers limit the scope and reach of a research endeavour. But this is only half the story. I have come to understand that some gatekeepers can offer guidance and insight – if we are granted the privilege of their mentorship. Working with, not against, gatekeepers can ‘co-construct’ research experiences in unexpected ways. Such collaboration unlocks our understanding – disbarring empirical gates we did not yet know about. In some cases, this kind of “coauthorship” may prove crucial for our understanding (Polkinghorne 2005). This was certainly the case for me.
Identifying and collaborating with gatekeepers proved crucial in my fieldwork. They did not only guard doors, but also unlocked new ones with exciting prospects. Perhaps most important is the way gatekeepers reminded me to keep a pulse on my privilege, the purpose of my research, and what I aim to achieve.
Durkheim, E. (1982). The rules of sociological method. New York: Free Press.
Durkheim, É. (1966). The division of labor in society (4. print. ed.). New York: Free Press.
Ely, M., Anzul, M., Freidman, T., Garner, D., & McCormack-Steinmetz, A., (2003). Doing qualitative research: Circles within circles. Taylor and Francis.
McLeod, J. (2001). Qualitative research in counselling and psychotherapy (1. publ. ed.). London: Sage Publication Ltd.
Polkinghorne, D. (2005). Language and meaning: Data collection in qualitative research. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 52(2), 137-145. doi:10.1037/0022-0126.96.36.199
Riessman, C.K. (2014). Analysis of personal narratives. In J. Gubrium, J. Holstein, A. Marvasti & K. McKinney (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of interview research: The complexity of the craft (pp. 367-380). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publication Ltd.