Recently I was asked how I recruited participants to take part in interviews for my PhD fieldwork. Having finished my PhD that examined the experiences of out-of-work parents last year, at first, my mind was a bit of a blur but then the process that I went through to recruit participants in both France and the UK came back to me. I thought it might be interesting for other people to find out more about the different approaches I used. None of these points are hard facts but I hope they provide useful tips for recruiting participants.
‘Participant’. Stock Image from Flickr.com [http://tinyurl.com/gvdz4uj]
I initially put up posters in shops and on noticeboards in the neighbourhoods where I was conducting interviews. In my experience, this was not very effective. Particularly because I was interviewing vulnerable groups, people might not have access to where I put the flyers, and they may not have felt confident contacting someone they didn’t know. However, it might be really useful for research with less vulnerable participants, especially if they all attend one place (e.g. parents at a school).
Contacting local groups
After this, I contacted local community groups and asked them if they could refer people to take part in my interviews. This led to me finding some people to interview and seemed to work particularly well in France. A drawback though was that it relied on community groups having the time to approach their clients for me, and knowing the lives of their clients well to ensure people met the profile of the group I was seeking to interview. Given this, I would suggest that anyone looking to use a similar approach in future plans in sufficient time for this process as in my experience it took several weeks or in some cases months.
Attending local meetings
The next approach that I tried was attending community meetings/events and talking about my study in person. I went to a really wide range of groups (from playgroups to cookery classes, to street parade meetings), helping me to get known in the community and develop contacts. The groups were generally very welcoming once I had explained the aims of my project and shown them documents such as my Interview Schedule. They tended to give me five minutes to explain the aims of my research and answer any questions people had. This proved a really useful way of recruiting participants as I think people often felt more at ease if they could put a face to the project. However, it meant I had to act quickly. Some people wanted to be interviewed there and then and only had a short amount of time available to be interviewed (one interview I did had to be conducted before my participant’s frozen food defrosted!). I had to quickly learn which were the most important research questions as I often didn’t have time to get through my whole interview schedule.
The final method I used was flyering. I distributed flyers in the main shopping areas in the neighbourhoods I was based in. Though it was time consuming, flyering in the UK widened the range of my participant group and even people who didn’t want to be interviewed brought up interesting points or passed on leaflets about my study to other people leading to new contacts. On the other hand, in France, flyering was very frustrating. People seemed less willing to stop and talk to me. Street flyering as a whole seemed much less common in the neighbourhood I was in in France than in the UK. Practically the only people I saw flyering were religious preachers. Maybe there is a PhD to be done comparing attitudes towards street flyering in France and the UK… I would definitely recommend following Shaw’s advice (2005) to spend time walking around the neighbourhood you are doing your fieldwork in. It meant I had a better idea where people were likely to stop in the neighbourhood (useful when planning flyering) and also meant I had a better idea of services and transport when people mentioned them in the interviews.
The most important advice that I can give that I learnt during my fieldwork is you need to be flexible. Quite rightly, my study was not the most important thing in people’s lives. Therefore, they did miss appointments because their children were ill, other appointments came up or they simply forgot. Whilst this was inconvenient, it was important to be understanding and ask if it was possible to rearrange the meeting. One of the most interesting interviews I did was with someone who cancelled three or four times initially. It was important not to pressurise people to take part and so if someone didn’t turn up to an interview, I would call/text to see if they wanted to rearrange. If they did, I would suggest alternative times. If they hesitated, I suggested they contacted me another time or said I understood and left it at that.
Overall, I would say qualitative research definitely has its challenges but if you are patient, flexible and show initiative in finding creative ways to recruit people, it can lead to rich interviews that really help you to get to the heart of individual experiences. I certainly enjoyed it!