How do I approach organizations about researching them/their clients?
October 5, 2013 3:29 PM   Subscribe

I'm working on research related to a specific immigrant population and I'm not sure what to do to get to know people in that community, but I figure organizations that work with them might be a good place to start. Unfortunately I'm really shy and I need guidance or a script on how to do this so I don't avoid it forever. If you've worked at an organization like this or have done similar research, how do you start?

I'm a socially anxious anthropologist and I'm not sure what to do. I have a few different organizations in mind but I feel like a weirdo or a voyeur or a bother if I approach organizations or, even worse, individuals. I'm in a foreign country and have no academic advisor so I'm completely lost and I'm starting to feel really useless and incompetent.

The big thing is that I don't want to simply chill at the office and have informal conversations with the staff (although I would like that too!). I'm here on a grant and all my time is directed towards my research in this field, so I would really like to give something back to these organizations too if possible. I don't speak the primary language here (although I speak quite a bit of the language this community speaks) so things like teaching casual local language courses aren't going to work. Should I mention the grant I'm here on (it's prestigious to those who know of it but meaningless to most)? Is it good to mention that I'd be interested in volunteering somehow if I'd be of any use? I feel kind of deceitful if I make it sound like it's just the agency I'm interested in when I would like to speak to actual community members, but what if that's frowned upon in the organization?

I'm not sure what is better--an email, via the 'contact us' pages? a phone call (to who within an agency)? a direct visit? Adding to my anxiety is that at the start of my time here, I had a good coincidental interaction with the head of a student organization for this community, but since then my e-mail and my voicemail have not been answered. I'm worried that I bothered them and it's really paralyzing me from doing anything else. I'm afraid I'm too shy for this field :(
posted by Papagayo to Education (6 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Whoever taught your research design class should have some pointers for you. In addition, your IRB process will have someone who might guide you through finding respondents.

If you're a Fulbright scholar, reach out to others before you. Either other anthropologists or others who worked with the population you are working with.
posted by bilabial at 4:04 PM on October 5, 2013

I think this can really vary depending on the community you are working with and the type of organizations that you are trying to interact with. The general answer is that, well, you're going to have to get over it. No one is going to go out of their way to get you to do your research, and ethnography is really a lot of talking to strangers, asking questions, and being open to new experiences. You'll also have to cold call a lot of places and try to find a place to insert yourself respectfully.

However, there are some concerning parts of your question. What, exactly, is the nature of the organizations you want to approach in order to gain access to the community? What is the nature of the community you intend to study?

For example: Are you working with refugee populations? If so, are you trying to work with resettlement/ social service organizations? There are a lot of sensitive issues for those organizations, especially as their service population will be affected by the war, torture, stress of a new country, medical problems, and a rational distrust of strangers.

If what I've previously described is at all what you are trying to do, I am . . . honestly surprised that you got the grant to do this without a very specific research plan. I'm not sure if you're under IRB oversight or not, but surely your proposal required you to lay out a detailed plan for gaining access to this community?

I mean, I'm not trying to be disrespectful, but I was only an anthropology major in undergrad and I did a couple projects in a disadvantaged community, and some of these questions are really fundamentally important ethical issues that you should already have answers to:

I feel kind of deceitful if I make it sound like it's just the agency I'm interested in when I would like to speak to actual community members, but what if that's frowned upon in the organization?

That's because that would be deceitful. Anyone you speak to in the field, for the purposes of research, must be made aware of your role as an academic. Especially if you're dealing with a disadvantaged community. Especially especially if the organizations you are hoping to volunteer with work in sensitive areas like social services or the medical field. Even if you are not working with a disadvantaged population, the same ethical considerations apply. As you know, embedded ethnography has a very troublesome history, so any organization that you work with will need to know up front what your goals are.

Maybe if you were a little more clear in the types of organizations/ community you are trying to gain access to, some of us would give you a more specific answer - maybe even someone from that community. Anyway, I'm probably totally off base and I really don't mean to sound condescending, so apologies if that's how I come off, but I'm just having a little trouble understanding how you got to where you are without a more considered plan than you've described.
posted by Think_Long at 4:54 PM on October 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm worried my last post came off as too harsh -

The main thing I meant to express was that the answers to your question about how to approach these organizations can really depend on what the actual organization is and what they do. I'm sure we could all help you come up with a standard calling script to lead off with, but I think our advice for your strategy will be really different depending on if it's a wealthy community church, or if it's a center for victims of torture (to name extremes).
posted by Think_Long at 5:00 PM on October 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Put it in writing and either hand deliver it to someone you know at the agency with an explanation or send it to whoever runs the field office. Explain exactly who you are, why you are interested in interviewing people of this group, why you would like the opportunity to approach them through the group, what their role would be (letting you speak for 5 minutes at a regular meeting? setting up introductions?), the scope of your interviews and how the information will be used. Be upfront about privacy, your academic code of ethics, your language skills and provide bonafides. Then wait a week and follow up with a polite phone call. It'll probably go up the chain and they'll get back to you eventually if they're OK with it but the phone call is necessary because they might forget too and it shows you are serious. Sending it in writing allows the people at the agency to send the info around to whomever needs to see it, and bonafides are necessary everywhere (letterhead of your university, letter from grant organization or at least a series of contacts they can reach via email or phone, ideally one in country, maybe at your embassy or sponsoring agency?).

I get a lot of requests for info and this is what I like. I actually prefer it in email but I'm in a Western country so you'll have to decide if a letter or email is better in that context. An explanatory email with an attached pdf letter/ scope of work/ resume would be one option too. And quite a professional one.
posted by fshgrl at 11:56 PM on October 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Think_Long you are not totally far off, although it's not nearly as extreme as a center for torture victims (yikes!). I'm aware of the ethical issues here--I've done similar research before, even though I realize this question makes me sound like a total noob. I sort of expected a slight degree more departmental support in accessing the community (and speaking to past researchers hasn't gotten me anywhere), which is probably why I sound a little desperate, but I'm aware that ultimately I am responsible for taking care of my project and that no one 'owes me' access to my research topic, geez. Which is kind of why I'm seeking an answer like fshgrl's here! I would be interested in maybe a church/other religious center and one larger NGO that provides services to the community (not so much legal services but basic provision or integration help).
If a website is not very thorough about individual contact info but just gives a generic 'contact us' page, is that still an appropriate place to approach? This is in a Western country also but some of these websites look a little out-of-date.
posted by Papagayo at 1:01 AM on October 6, 2013

Best answer: I work for a community organisation which works with immigrants and refugees. We do get occasional requests for people who would like to talk to our clients for research and I have also had to approach other organisations to speak with them / their community members to engage more clients.

People who have been most successful in approaching members through our organisation are people who have a plan of exactly what they want to do, including how much time they want to spend with individual clients and how it would benefit the clients. (Also what you plan to do with the information and how you plan to obtain full consent and ensure confidentiality.) To arrange to do this I would suggest sending an e-mail and then following up two or three days later with a phone call. Do some research first to make sure you are contacting the right person. Do not just show up without an appointment. Researchers have done this in the past and if I am busy and what you are proposing is not beneficial to our members then you won't get anywhere.

The other people who normally get positive responses to research requests are people who spend time volunteering for the organisation I work with, refer a lot of clients or who are offering something hugely beneficial to the clients.

The other side of this is that I sometimes have to approach organisations myself and when I began to do this I was worried I was too shy for it. What has helped me is having a large number of organisations that I can approach so I don't feel like I am hassling any one person. My take away from this has been to always make sure you are talking to the right person - if you are contacting someone who doesn't have the authority to grant your request it may get dismissed or forgotten about further up the chain. Another suggestion would be to research the organisation and trying to work with them - for example by asking to come along and talk to people at a discussion or drop in group they run.
posted by Laura_J at 9:51 AM on October 6, 2013

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