Through a carefully executed plan? Representative sampling? Existing contacts? Stroke of luck…..happy accidents?
I may nullify my credibility as a researcher when revealing that for me the latter has proven the most successful. Some may call it snowballing to maintain academic valour, but perhaps it’s all just a matter of being at the right place at the right time and using those organic contacts to form trusting relationships and making further contacts. For ethnographic research like mine trust is essential, and you sit somewhere between a friend and a researcher in order to foster that trust and to be able to construct the knowledge and data together with your research partners. This is precisely the reason why I have recently started to call people who take part in my research, those I study, as partners rather than participants. Research should not be a one way street for me into ‘Doctorhood’, but rather a partnership during which we co-construct a picture of the reality we want my research to represent, the message we want it to send and the value we want it to produce. These research partners come in many forms and you come in touch with them in unexpected ways more often than none. What I have discovered is that there are three types of partners in this process, at least for me: The Conduits, the Key partners, and the Contacts.
The Conduit is the first link in the chain. They are the connectors getting you in touch with those who have information relevant to your research. You meet them in unexpected places, by chance or by design, and they come into your life from all walks of life and in all manner of social situations. While they are the ones who connect you with your Key Partners, they too often remain an integral part of your research group in one way or another. They don’t just connect you with your informants, they help maintain that trust and relationship with your other partners, are often referred to in conversations and some remain as confidants for you during the field work. The Key Partners on the other hand are those who are qualitatively relevant to your topic, either by having deep knowledge of the issues you are researching, or otherwise engaged in activities that are under scrutiny in your research. They form the core of your research team and are the valuable members who you stay in touch with for a long period of time. Through their engagement and networks, you will then be introduced to a futher larger cohort of individuals who form the basis of your Contacts and function as informants in a more traditional sense.
I have three Key Partners in my research who were the original core of my network, one in each community I am studying. Below I’ve introduced how my happy accidents and chance meetings resulted in the formation of excellent relationships and contacts across the communities. Possibly the difference between my research and that of many others, as well as the major challenge I faced upon arrival, was that I had no existing contacts in Tohoku when I arrived. I was literally starting from scratch and I think the following encounters exemplify the somewhat accidental ways in which I came in touch with my research partners. Still counting my lucky stars!
As I mentioned above, I’m currently working in three communities in the Miyagi prefecture. The very first contact I made was in October. Having just arrived in Tohoku I was feeling a little lonely and was trying to come up with ways of meeting people….since my programme pretty much consists of four people, with everyone being fairly busy with their work (and to be honest, I do tend to seek friends outside the academia as well…we just end up talking shop when left amongst ourselves and interacting with the non-academics has a way of keeping you grounded). As an avid Couchsurfer I contacted a few fellow travelers in Sendai and met up with one of them for a drink on one Thursday evening. After exchanging experiences and life stories, the discussion turned to work, and I explained what my research is about and what I am hoping to achieve here. My couchsurfer buddy went on to suggest that I get in touch with an organisation he volunteered for some years ago saying they sound like something that might fit the bill that is my research. First Key Partner was recruited about a week later.
The following month I received a leaflet in my letter box stating the local disaster management committee was recruiting foreigners from the neighbourhood to take part in a disaster management drill. As I had never been to one I decided to join as it might be useful for the research and give me a clearer picture of how communities prepare for disasters in Japan. During the presentations at the drill I started to speak with one of the foreign volunteers recruited as interpreters who after finding out I was from the UK, suggested I take part in a trial tour organised by Matsushima Town to help promote tourism in the area. As I had never been to Matsushima at that time, I decided it might be a day well spent.
On the day of the tour we were told to assemble at the Sendai Station where we’d be divided into two groups. Five happy foreigners came together that day and we were escorted into Matsushima and two other communities in the area. One of the other participants was an Assistant Language Teacher in Ishinomaki, who was also running some conversation classes in the city. We again exchanged life stories and current plans, after which she proceeded to invite me to join her conversation class the following week as she believed I should meet one of her students who is very much involved in recovery activities in his community. A week later I made the trip and partner number two was recruited for the research.
My final key partner was again recruited through the happy accident route when I took part in a disaster tour in January (something I should also write about in here!), during the course of which I met with a young gentleman who has started a new business in one of the communities devastated by the disaster. After the day’s activities and his interesting presentation to us, I proceeded to go and introduce myself to him. We exchanged business cards and discussed his organisation and my research further. Some time afterwards I got in touch with him over e-mail and we are set to meet for an interview over the next couple of weeks.
Since then my Key Partners have introduced me to further local contacts whose views will be recorded and included into the study. These contacts would have been impossible to make had it not been for my chance encounters that led me to these amazing people who have helped me so much along the way.
Naturally this is not the only way I have got in touch with people, or made contacts in general, and I haven’t solely relied on walking the streets of Sendai with my head in the clouds waiting to bump into people. There is a great deal of e-mailing, phone calls and online searches involved in finding participants, but for me gaining these key partners as my traveling companions has been a true stroke of luck! One of the most important aspects about treating those involved in your research as partners is trust, as I mentioned before, which is Japan especially gains an additional layer of importance anyway. I can trust these partners to stay with the research until the end as they have exhibited commitment and enthusiasm toward the project. In return, I make sure I repay them for their efforts and kindness, and unbelievable amount of time they are sacrificing for this project, with the same level of commitment and motivation by supporting their projects in return, showing interest and enthusiasm, and sharing my thoughts and the research process with them in an open and honest way. These are the people who also help to keep you SANE! They give you an incredible amount of confidence which is something we often forget. By being there, they make you believe in yourself and the thing you are trying to achieve. They make it happen as much as you do.