In order to answer this question, I will analyse the problems Leonard faced in investigating a sensitive topic in a political sensitive locality and whether she successfully overcame them, and how she was realistic enough to change technique to react to her changing circumstances. It is also important to see how well she achieved Reliability, Validity, representative ness as well as dealing with the many ethical issues which came up.
According to Sieber and Stanley(1998)” politically sensitive research refers to studies which there are potential consequences, implications, either directly for the participants in the research or for the class of individuals represented by the research. “i This tells me that politically sensitive research is more complicated than “normal” research because in this case the researcher Madeleine Leonard has ethnical issues and feels a responsibility to those she is researching in this case.
This is always a problem to the researcher because her results can be considered extremely sensitive as the whole community researched could be harmed with their publication. Leonard aimed to examine the extent and significance of informal economic activity in an estate characterised by high long term unemployment, and more specifically the extent of state welfare benefit fraud in her chosen area This to me highlights another problem straight away, Leonard deliberately chose the “Newbury” estate as it represented the peak unemployment area in Northern Ireland.
This high level of unemployment was also well documented and was the focus for considerable negative publicity, from this Leonard could not let her judgement become clouded by the “myths of the media” typified in the Sun newspaper “shop a scrounger” campaign in the summer of 1993, she had to remain objective to keep her results valid. Another problem Leonard faced was having the knowledge that most of the locals she was going to research were more than likely bordering on illegality.
Because “Doing the Double” or working informally whilst simultaneously collecting welfare is illegal, this knowledge presented a number of moral and ethnic problems to Leonard ; as I have said the community in question could be harmed, Leonard could be accused of having and holding preconceived prejudical attitudes by initially deciding to focus on that area and, ethically, did Leonard in fact have the right to expose the wrong doing of others for the sake of demonstrating the fallacy of equating work with formal employment – however as Leonard said ” all the researcher can do is constantly reflect on their heightened responsibilities to respondants in terms of privacy, confidentiality and anonymity where respondants are being asked to reveal incriminating information about themselves”.
This is supported by Sieber and Stanley(1988) who pointed out that “sensitive research addresses some societies most pressing social issues and policy questions. Although ignoring the ethical issues in sensitive research is not a responsible approach to science, shying away from controversial topics simply because they are controversial, it is also an avoidance of responsibility. ” The next problem Leonard faced after choosing where to research is what research method to use, and was there any form of research she couldn’t use.
Should she use the numerical method – Quantitative research favoured by Functionalists, Marxists, Positivists and Phenominologists who all consider this technique more scientific, should she use the descriptive more in depth Qualitative research favoured by Interactionists but seen as unreliable because its tests cannot be repeated or should she try and mix the two and have a more balanced result. Initially she felt that qualitative research based on participant observation and extensive unstructured and semi – structured interviews were best suited to her purposes. Qualitative methods have special qualities for dealing with controversial topics in sensitive locations as they entail a gradual and progressive contact with respondants which is sustained over a long period, allowing a rapport to be established slowly with respondants (Brewer1996)ii.
Ostensibly, participant observation is a straight forward technique; by immersing herself in the subject being studied. The researcher is presumed to gain understanding, perhaps more deeply than could be obtained ,for example, by questionnaire items. Arguments in favour of this method include reliance on first hand information, high face validity of data, and reliance on relatively simple and inexpensive methods. The downside of participant observation as a data gathering technique is increased threat to the objectivity of the researcher, unsystematic gathering of data, reliance on subjective measurement, and possible observer effects (observation may distort the observed behaviour).
After choosing the locality to research, and deciding the initial research method, Leonard had to gain access to the community, as well as this problem she had to decide whether to be covert (real identity unknown) – as not to disturb normal behaviour allowing the researcher to explore more deeply and to gain more valid information or overt (real identity known) – allowing her to ask questions openly and be more ethically sound. A problem which arises from both covert and overt researching is the physical dangers. If the researcher decided to be overt then the people being researched would have enough information to threaten the researcher if for example sensitive information got to security forces, leaving her life in danger.
If the researcher was covert – the researcher could be in a lot of danger if his/her cover was broken, or in order to gain trust in a covert situation the researcher may have to take part in the illegal act. Covert would however probably be more valid because people would be less likely to lie to someone in their trust. Leonard addressed this problem by deciding to be overt. Access to Newbury estate was facilitated by her employment, one night a week, in a local community school in the district. The community school was a key focal point in the estate, it served as a meeting place for many residents of the estate who utilised the premises as a drop in centre.
Being a teacher helped her blend in and gave her the opportunity to observe the residents of the estate in everyday interaction with each other. Teaching in the school helped her develop trust and establish relationships with several residents in the area who were able to act as key informants. It was Leonard’s intention to utilise the contacts she already had in the estate to gain access to the wider society. She intended to gain access to the wider social pattern by interviewing their social networks and associates in a snowball pattern. While snowball sampling throws up problems of representativeness, Leonard initially felt it was the only way she could gain meaningful data on informal work.
However Leonard became unhappy with the snowball effect for several reasons, firstly the method proved very time consuming. Long periods lapsed between repondants expressing their willingness to pass Leonard through their social networks and these contacts materialising. Even when interviews were arranged, often the setting was the community school rather than the respondants households. It seemed logical to her contacts that the community school serve as an interview base and they stated it would enhance their willingness to talk to her as anonymity would be assured, however another problem came form this with the interviews becoming artificial blaming the formality of making a definite appointment.
Leonard became increasingly dissatisfied with the quality of data she was collecting. Sample sizes were very small and respondants were interviewed often in isolation from their households and the wider community. In reaction to this problem she decided to combine research methods as she became dissatisfied with the usage of qualitative in isolation. She felt that the qualitative approach used prior to her survey, though valuable , was merely scratching at the surface of the range of informal work in Newbury. A number of advantages can be gained by combining research methods. The integration of ethnographic and survey methods can contribute to a better overall understanding of the research topic.
Both approaches can provide a crosscheck for each other, enabling researchers to have greater confidence in common findings (Sieber 1982p177). She also aimed to use the survey of the houses in the area to gain access to the peoples houses. Another problem which faced Leonard was walking up garden paths to the individual houses and convincing the occupants to allow her to come in and interview them. Yet she was greatly assisted in her search for information by the fact that she originally came from a Catholic working class area in west Belfast, she also welcome intrusions into her own personal life and once it was established that she was one of them , trust and confidence were soon secured.
Leonard was able to reassure respondants and use her ethical stance by using a pseudonym for the estate however a problem was that while this would enhance anonymity, she could give no guarantees that the location would remain a secret, however her questionnaires never had any addresses or names on it which enabled her to deflect another problem, when the army stopped and searched her. Leonard entered more problems during these house interviews – because she never asked direct questions about “Doing the double” she rather hoped to introduce the topic gradually, Brannan(1988 P153)iii supports this by suggesting that researchers into sensitive topics need to tread warily, particularly at the beginning of the interview and not reveal all their hand at the out set. She also states that it is important not to prejudge the research problem by labelling it or defining its boundaries too closely, respondants may thereby define the problem in their own terms.
The main problem from this technique was that it was very time consuming, Leonard wanted to adopt as unobtrusive a role as possible, so writing down everything that was said would therefore interrupt the natural flow of the conversations so she had to put key points to memory, which is a problem in itself that decreases reliability and validity as this test cannot be repeated and the author has to use his/her own prerogative to pick and chose what to record and what not to, so despite the need for the researcher to be unbiased, to a certain extent it is included be it sympathetic or otherwise and it is a problem. The flexible manner in which interviews were taken and carried out may have implications for the reliability of the material gathered.
Interviews were not consistent and valuable data may have been lost due to Leonard’s interpretation of the situation which all in all points out the problem; to what extent can Leonard utilize the informal discussions as trust worthy data, and to what extent can you argue that because she was overt were the locals willing to tell the truth. To conclude, Leonard faced and effectively dealt with a lot of different problems in this current research, her flexibility and her willingness to change if the situation demanded it, is a key point to understanding Leonard’s success at problem solving. In this current research there is sensitivity at all stages of the research process and intensifies the general problems usually associated with carrying out research. In particular, sensitivity introduces all sorts of technical and ethical obstacles and the researchers attempts to resolve these issues may influence the validity and reliability of the resulting data.