The challenge of accessing data: My PhD journey so far, Part 2

Published on: Author: nighetriaz 1 Comment

[cover image (c) Phillippa Willetts]

By Nighet Riaz

THIS is a follow-up to my recent post on the website socialtheoryapplied – to access the first part of this post click here).

The research for my PhD was originally designed as an ethnographic study. I wanted to be part of delivering the intervention in order to carry out participant observations and observe the culture of the school and day to day interactions of all the participants within the school environment. Even though I had identified the scope of my study, at a provisional stage, this allowed me to identify the aims of the research, its practical applications (if any), the design, methods and procedures I needed to use, and the nature and size of the groups. The delay in access allowed me to revisit the research design and adapt it to a new timescale to show consideration and respect by being more flexible and adaptive in my approach towards participating in conversation with the head teachers and senior management members within the school. This reflexive process enabled me to recognise the argument which Flick (1998, p57) discusses, that research will disturb the system and cause disruption of routines, without offering anything of real benefit to the institution. This would offer one explanation as to why the schools had refused access so far (September 2013), although all four schools who were approached by the gatekeeper, have now agreed to take part in the research.

Cohen et al (2009, p178) discuss the role the researcher must adopt to manage entry into the context of the study, and in the literature Wolff (2004, p195-196) argues that there are two fundamental questions which need to be addressed in considering access and entry into the field – both of which are relevant to me in my journey through my research so far.

  1. How can researchers succeed in making contact and securing cooperation from informants?
  2. How can researchers position themselves in the field so as to secure the necessary time, space and social relations to be able to carry out the research?

Ethical Dilemmas

The next couple of quotes illustrate the delicate art of negotiating by a gatekeeper of authority to gain access. The first quote is from a head teacher who was unhappy at having their school take part in the research:

“I am, of course, aware of the research proposal but the fact that no school has made an official response is indicative of the very real pressures which we are all under at the moment, pressures which require us to take difficult decisions about what constitutes our main priorities. I have no reason to doubt that the eventual findings might be of some use to our schools but I do not feel that I am able to commit to this proposal at the moment, with all of its attendant possible disruption to teaching and learning. I would also stress that I am not in any way speaking on behalf of my colleagues in this matter” [Head teacher].

This is counteracted by the gatekeeper explaining how the researcher will accommodate the needs of the school and will adapt both her research and be more flexible to cause minimum intrusion into the school environment.

“At least one school has now connected with the research.  I totally understand your point about the very real pressures we are under at the moment (we are not immune to it in HQ!).  Can I emphasise that all that the researcher is looking to do at this stage is to discuss with each school what activities are feasible/possible in relation to her proposed research.  She has an idea of what she would ideally like to do, but understands that she will need to be flexible in relation to what is actually possible” [Council gatekeeper reply to head teacher].

This led to a discussion with fellow academics about the ethical dilemmas which are encapsulated in the dialogues between the head teacher and the gatekeeper.

“It is such a shame that this small study has caused so much upset to colleagues who are already under great pressures of work, as it appears in this […] exchange that they have been coerced into compliance by a form of what appears to be no less than institutional bullying!” [Academic 1]

Whereas another colleague gave another perspective

“…..and was encouraged that those at senior level in the authority are interested enough to want to support the research – sometimes it takes a leadership role to encourage schools to participate in research, since […]’s experiences have illustrated that schools would often just simply go on making excuses not to take part in these things if that type of leadership were not in place.  Of course, this may be because of pressure of work but it also because they simply get caught up in the minutia of what they are doing on a daily basis and don’t always realise the potential for research to provide important illustrations for future directions for policy and practice” [Academic 2].

Even though I have been given access to the 4 schools, a lot of pressure was exerted top- down from those in positions of authority and power. It wasn’t a route that I wished to take in the first place and it was only after nearly 2 years, and since February in particular – I have felt as if I was in a form of limbo and became increasingly worried about not getting anywhere after months of constantly knocking on doors that I took the step to contact the Minister for Lifelong Learning, who then cascaded it down to Education Services, which led to the Head of Education Services then endorsing my research.

I am dealing with several feelings across the spectrum from exhilaration to panic to guilt: exhilaration that I will get to carry out my original research and that I have a Plan B; to panic – where I go back to feeling like an imposter and wondering if I can do my research the justice it deserves in the limited timeframe, as I still am unable to emulate the behaviour of an academic and failing miserably in finding a doctoral voice. It will come with experience further down the line as my knowledge and expertise grows in the area; to guilt – because I feel I could have gone through the normal avenues and not travelled the line of privilege to access those in power, who then exerted pressure on others further down the chain.


Although I found it challenging to gain access to the schools and affiliated agencies, a number of strategies were explored and put into practise. The most successful strategy in my research study was to go to the most senior figure in charge of Education in Scotland, a strategy in line with Festinger and Katz (1966), Stake (1999) and Patton (2002) about insuring the research is endorsed. Through a dialogue via emails, negotiations are being undertaken to ensure no participants are inconvenienced or their education timetables disrupted. Ensuring that the concerns of the gatekeepers and participants are dealt with openly and honestly and remaining open to advice from the head teacher or senior management teaching staff on how the fieldwork should be carried out are crucial to maintaining a respectful dialogue and relationship with the gatekeeper and participants.

The most important factor was the support network that was available to me every time I floundered. The supervisors, fellow academics, and the gatekeeper helped me explore different perspectives and think about designing a Plan B if access was not granted within a workable timeframe, which was invaluable. Knowing that I had a back-up plan relieved some of the pressure I felt I was under. The constant critical feedback that I asked for and was given allowed me to become more reflexive and aware of issues around the first stage of entering the research field.



Burgess, R. G. (1984) In the field: An introduction to field research. London: Allen and Unwin.

Cohen, L. & Manion, L. (1994) Surveys in research methods in education: 4th Edition. London: Routledge.

Feldman, M., Bell, J. & Berger, M. (2003) Gaining access: A practical and theoretical guide for qualitative researchers. California: AltaMira Press

Friedman, Jennifer, Orrù, Marco, (1991), Organisational access to research settings: Entering secondary schools, The American Sociologist, Summer (1991), Springer-Verlag, Volume 22, Issue 2, pp 117-136.

Johnson, J. M., (1975), Doing field research. New York: Free Press.

Lincoln, Y.S. & Guba, E.G. (1985) Naturalistic inquiry, Beverly Hills: Sage.

Okumus, F., Altinay, L. & Roper, A. 2007, Gaining access for research: reflections from experience. Annals of Tourism Research, vol. 34, no.1, pp.7-26.

Patton, M.Q. (2002), Qualitative evaluation and research methods, 3rd ed. Sage, Newbury Park, CA.

Schatzman, L., & Anselm L. Strauss. (1973) Field research. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Shaffir, William B., Robert A. Stebbins, and Allan Turowetz. 1980. “Getting In.” Pp. 23–30 in Fieldwork Eeperience, edited by William B. Shaffir, Robert A. Stebbins, and Allan Turowetz. New York: St. Martin’s.

Shenton, A. & Hayter, S. (2004) Strategies for gaining access to organizations and informants in qualitative studies. Education for Information, 22, 223-231.

Stake, R.E., (1995) The art of case study research. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage.


About Nighet:

NighetNighet Riaz is an associate lecturer and PhD researcher in the Institute for Youth and Community Research at the University of the West of Scotland. Nighet’s thesis aims to explore the experiences of young people. There will be an emphasis on those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, growing up in urban areas in the West of Scotland via school and agency led youth work projects that aim to reengage young people categorised as NEET (Not in Employment Education or Training). By looking at their varied and complex biographies it will address young people’s experiences and perceptions of their communities and their transitions from education to the workplace. Getting lost in the transition from education to work is one of the key risks of social exclusion for young people which may lead to subsequent involvement in anti-social behaviour and crime.



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