The challenges of survey research in high crime communities

The challenges of survey research in high crime communities – Blog

Fieldwork is not an easy practice but conducting it in high crime communities is a daunting task. These communities often have their own demands, expectations and ideas about what the research is, what it will do and, at times, how it ought to be conducted. The expectations of the researched community and the research tend to clash, creating challenges for researchers who usually have time-driven outcomes and related pressures from funders and other stakeholders. This piece looks at these from a view-point of a longitudinal survey attempt that took place in Gugulethu in the winter of 2017. 

The aim of the study was to measure behavioural change impact on youth attending the activities of a specific NGO within an 800 metre radius from the premises of the NGO. The survey intended to follow up with teenagers aged 13 to 18 to qualitatively measure the behavioural impact of participants due to participation with the NGO over a number of years. Here, a scientifically randomised sample of houses would be visited and a survey conducted using smart phones. Redcap app was used as a data-capturing programme, whilst GPS location was used to locate and confirm the randomly selected houses. 

Gugulethu is a township outside Cape Town, 15 km from the city centre. It consists of both formal (brick houses) houses and informal houses (shacks).  The township harbours predominantly Xhosa speaking groups, migrants from Eastern Cape and Capetonians born in the area.  Even though it compares better than its neighbours Nyanga and Manenberg when it comes to crime and violence, Gugulethu is still quite a rough area when it comes to crime. The township is in close proximity to at least three of the Western Cape Universities, which makes it an easy and popular target for research. All of these factors about the place shaped the research interaction.  

“The community has often seen researchers coming into their community to mine information and leave them with nothing”

The study encountered a number of challenges: these ranged from technical glitches of the technology used, to the safety of fieldworkers, to the accessibility of certain areas, and many more issues pointing to the discrepancy between theory and practice. The reality on the ground was that doing research in such a community is quite expensive both literally and figuratively. The area, as alluded to above, is in close proximity to research institutions like universities. That in reality meant that the community was research-fatigued.

The community has often seen researchers coming in their community to mine information and leave them with nothing, in the usual style of mining conglomerates. It is seen as a parasitic interaction which often leaves the mined area bearing the scars: scars from hope, or even opening up of wounds without any intentions to close them. Researchers, through asking questions about people’s lives, wittingly or unwittingly raise the expectations of the community, then leave the community behind wondering whether something would come out of it.

And in most cases nothing really comes of it, yet they have opened themselves up to strangers who are only interested in their stories to use them as ladders to climb up to the high academic discourse. Against this background it is therefore understandable why communities view research with suspicion and are not receptive to it, which becomes a major challenge for doing research in such communities.  

“Negotiating access is not only about accessing the area, but mostly about the safety of the fieldworkers and respecting the community.”

One of the other challenges we encountered in the area was accessibility. Whilst experience had told us that talking to relevant stakeholders and leadership is vital for a smooth entry into the community; we were found wanting in this regard. The reality of this specific community was that the community was compartmentalised in terms of migrants from certain areas being concentrated in one space, and those who were born in the area were concentrated in other spaces. This compartmentalised housing arrangement also meant that areas which may look the same, were in the same vicinity, and were separated by a mere street often had different leadership and did not feel represented by those staying next door. 

This made negotiating access rather challenging as the borders are not clearly defined. This means that at various times the research team would be stopped by a group of people demanding to know who gave the research the go-ahead in their community without their consent. Now, in the context of a violent area this poses a safety threat to fieldworkers. Negotiating access is not only about accessing the area, but mostly about the safety of the fieldworkers and respecting the community. 

The safety of fieldworkers was one of the key challenges faced during the survey. The survey was conducted using gadgets like smart phones and tablets. These are not only difficult to hide but must also be taken out to search GPS coordinates to confirm if the house that is in front of the fieldworker is the correct house to do an interview in. This attracts unnecessary attention and imbues fear among fieldworkers as robbers usually go for gadgets such as smart phones. 

Also regarding safety: there were certain questions which would trigger an unsafe environment for both the interviewer and interviewee where there were questions around drug use. In shack houses, especially where there is another shack attached to the same one where the interview is happening, there is always a possibility of someone overhearing the conversation and that may put everyone concerned at risk. The ethical issue of protecting the interviewee is often compromised because most households usually do not have enough rooms for privacy so at times our cars were the better option. This, however, creates another danger where a male interviewer can be suspected of doing something he should not be doing with a teenager, and that poses risks of its own. 

When communities have accepted you into their community, they do take an extra mile to protect you. Often they would tell us which streets to avoid and in some areas the volunteer community safety members would walk fieldworkers around, which creates a much safer environment. But in some cases, they also do not understand why they should not be inside to listen to the interview. 

“When communities have accepted you into their community, they do take an extra mile to protect you.”

The other problem is that some community members whose houses are not among the randomly selected may accuse the community safety personnel of choosing certain households and this may create unwarranted animosity in a few cases, as some people strongly believe that they are being excluded from their perceived benefits. 

As researchers, the safety of the fieldworkers and attaining secure and valuable data is quite important to us. Seemingly, small things can be triggers of an environment that may compromise all of that. That is why sharing these experiences is important. 

One of the strategies we adopted in the field was to always have debriefing sessions where people talked about their experiences of the day. If possible we then link a particular experience to a specific case. If the interviewer did not feel safe at the time of the interview, that information is important during analysis as it might give a skewed perspective on the line of questioning and responses.
Also, working in groups and walking with each other is an effective way of creating a feeling of safety among the fieldworkers.

However, the key was having community members around who are known in the area. We were able to utilise the community safety personnel, and that was gold. This means that for our safety as researchers and the safety of our respondents there is indeed a need for research leaders to invest time negotiating with and understanding the community before sending us in as fieldworkers. These are a few lessons from the many that were gained on that specific study.