Accessing research settings and participants can be deeply challenging for scientific research, especially when gatekeepers are involved. Gatekeepers are known to affect research through, among other reasons, their position inside institutions, their knowledge of the research topic, and their power over prospective participants. This article explores the methodological and ethical challenges that may arise from resorting to gatekeepers to access participants in qualitative criminological research. Using reflexive notes from the fieldwork of two doctoral research projects in criminology, this article emphasizes the central role gatekeepers can assume in qualitative research regarding gaining access to participants for a study and conducting research with subjects selected by gatekeepers. It is argued that reflexivity is an essential tool in compelling researchers to think about the fundamental guiding principles necessary to the notion of trustworthiness. It is also argued that reflexivity promotes potentially valuable strategies to overcome research challenges.
Keywords: Gatekeepers, qualitative research, criminology, reflexivity, fieldwork
The process of accessing research settings and participants has been an ongoing challenge to researchers since its ineffectiveness prevents the researcher from collecting data (Davies & Peters, 2014; McFayden & Rankin, 2016; Reeves, 2010; Riese, 2019; Stevens, 2020). Access is understood as a continuous and dynamic process (Feldman, Bell & Berger, 2003), which is built and thrives under the management of rapport between the researcher, the research setting, and the participants (Riese, 2019). Furthermore, it is also seen as a process of acceptance and cooperation (Holloway & Wheeler, 2009) reflecting continuous negotiation (Riese, 2019; Bryman, 2016; Davies & Peters, 2014; Walker & Read, 2011; Reeves, 2010).
Gatekeepers have become a key element in terms of access (Aaltonen & Kivijärvi, 2019; McFayden & Rankin, 2016; Davies & Peters, 2014; Reeves, 2010). Due to their positioning inside institutions, gatekeepers are usually responsible for protecting those within their settings (Kay, 2019; Peter & Davies, 2014; Walker & Read, 2011). They have the power to grant, withhold, or limit access (Fitz-Gibbon, 2017; Singh & Wassenaar, 2016; Gray, 2013) to research fields and participants (Christian et al., 2021; Wright & Doran, 2021; Petintseva, Faria & Eski, 2020; Singh & Wassenaar, 2016). Furthermore, gatekeepers may also encompass people in charge of formal institutions and their staff whose consents are mandatory to access critical documents or individuals under their supervision (Atkinson et al., 2019). Therefore, gatekeepers are considered crucial for research success (Christian et al., 2021; Waters et al., 2020; McFayden et al., 2016; Crowhurst & Macfoy, 2013) because they may condition the research’s trajectory (Hannah-Moffat, 2011; Reeves, 2010), findings (Hannah-Moffat, 2011) and the quality of the data (Singh & Wassenaar, 2016; Crowhurst & Macfoy, 2013).
This article is driven by the first and second authors' fieldwork experiences during two doctoral research projects in Criminology. The first author’s study had the primary goal of analyzing the reception conditions and integration practices in place for refugees in Portugal. This was done through the perceptions of professionals working, directly and indirectly, in the Portuguese asylum system. The second author’s study aimed to access the insights of professionals from the Portuguese security forces regarding their perceptions of the personal motives of men and women to be part of organized criminal groups and their roles within these groups. The resort to gatekeeping was the main tactic used to recruit participants in both studies.
Using a qualitative approach to conduct two criminological studies emphasizes the importance of focusing from the start on the potential and limitations of the method chosen. To this end, special consideration must be given to the type of data the researcher intends to collect and the consequential effect that the data collection process will have on the research results. In contrast, qualitative tactics emphasize the importance of taking into consideration, when entering the field of research, several challenges that may arise from studying sensitive issues (Palacios, 2015; Loseke, 2013). The researcher must adopt methods for achieving a reflexive stance to actively engage in reflexivity, such as “keeping reflexive diaries, writing ourselves into field notes, recording analytic and methodological decisions in memos, and being reflexive about every decision we make” (Barry et al., 1990, pp.31).
Based on this perspective, this article sees fieldwork as an instrument for obtaining data and as a process of knowledge construction influenced by the researcher's experience in the field, along with the logic and socio-spatial dynamics of interactions. In this process, reflexivity becomes a central element of the researcher's full engagement in the research process. Field notes are essential to the journey toward reflection (Palacios, 2015). During their qualitative criminological studies, the first and second authors took field notes after meeting with the gatekeepers and following interviews with participants. In these notes, the first and second authors addressed the power dynamics between the authors and the gatekeepers and the participants recruited through gatekeepers. These notes were beneficial in explaining the environment and critical issues of these gatherings. For both studies, the strategy adopted to guide field notes was to focus on key characteristics, descriptions, and observations in the comments of gatekeepers and participants.
Through the use of reflexivity and based on the fieldwork notes of the first and second authors, this article will increase researchers’ knowledge regarding the methodological and ethical impacts of using gatekeepers in qualitative criminological research. Various strategies will be provided to help researchers overcome any challenges that may arise from the interaction between them and gatekeepers and the participants selected by gatekeepers. We argue that researchers may become more thoughtful and aware of their decisions if they use reflexivity to understand the complexities of accessing the research field.
Qualitative research allows the researcher to emerge as the subject under study and develop sensitization concepts that improve the understanding and explanation of reality and phenomena (Miller & Palacios, 2015). Qualitative research includes methodologies that seek to uncover subjects' viewpoints in social contexts (Silverman, 2013). In addition, Davies & Francis (2018) claim that this methodology observes the interaction between the subject and society and the facts and emotions accompanying such subjects. For qualitative researchers, gaining and maintaining access to a research field is a fundamental and standard process (Stevens, 2020; Riese, 2019; Cheek, 2011). However, the increasing scholar demand for results, publications, funding (Atkinson, 2019; Brannen et al., 2013; Wigfall et al., 2013), or even ethical commission approvals (Cheek, 2011) trivializes access, potentially promoting disregard for the complexity of the inherent challenges (Riese, 2019).
In criminological research, it is common to encounter social and institutional powerful figures (Lumsden & Winter, 2014). However, the process of accessing research settings and participants has been a vaguely touched topic of research in criminology (Stevens, 2020). Nevertheless, criminological studies have already experienced the gatekeeper’s power to limit or deny access to potential research participants on the grounds of their vulnerability (Jeffords, 2007; Myers, 2015). Others have stressed the hampering of criminological research by political agendas (Hannah-Moffat, 2011). Lind et al. (2021) state that these institutional blockages of access to research may even discourage future criminological research with vulnerable populations. Therefore, a researcher’s use of gatekeepers could be considered a process that has consequences over research, thus requiring a reaction from the researcher (Collyer et al., 2017). Reviewing the activities, choices, and interactions made during the research process leads to an introspective self-analysis of how the researcher’s abilities, experience, and competencies impacted the study. Through this process, it is possible to support and suggest better-informed and more effective approaches to gatekeepers (McFayden et al., 2016). To gain insights into the process of accessing a work field through gatekeepers, reflexivity may be ideal (Crowhurst & Macfoy, 2022; McFayden et al., 2016; Bergman & Wettergren, 2015; Miller & Bell, 2012) and may help research completion (Spacey et al., 2021; Crowhurst, 2013; Reeves, 2010). Fenge et al. (2019) argued that positionality is a fundamental aspect when reflecting on the impact of conducting sensitive research. Reflexivity is associated with understanding the many roles and perspectives that both the researcher and the subject of the research bring to the process. In their study, the authors noticed that researchers discussed issues concerning their ability to reflect on their roles and identities (Fenge et al., 2019). According to Petintseva, Faria, and Eski (2020, pp.2), when conducting research with professionals at certain levels of power, “whether it is by means of expertise, professional and/or social status,” it is necessary to develop a “methodological sensitivity” and awareness of the challenges that may occur related to “access, talking about sensitive topics, negotiating control over the course of the interview and publishing about delicate topics.”
In this sense, the construction of rapport between a researcher and a gatekeeper is uproarious, volatile, unexpected (Wanat, 2008), and a multidirectional process (Riese, 2019). A power relation built upon trust and cooperation (Crowhurst & Macfoy, 2022) is determined by several factors which can shape the gatekeeper’s or the participant’s behavior toward enabling or preventing the development of the research (Riese, 2019; Walker & Read, 2011). Reflexivity is a proactive and ongoing process of awareness, steered by the researcher, about the impact of the researcher’s presence, decisions, values, biases, and methods on the research process, relationships, and outcomes (Bryman, 2016; McFayden & Rankin, 2016; Lumsden & Winter, 2014; Reeves, 2010). As a retrospective process, reflexivity encourages reviewing past actions and events to improve future behaviors and practices (Bulman & Schutz, 2013).
In the context of power dynamics in accessing a research setting, this awareness enhances the researcher’s sense of accountability over his methodological and ethical decisions, promoting more thoughtful and precautionary decisions (Riese, 2019). Reflexivity is also believed to enhance the researcher’s creativity and resilience (Spacey et al., 2021), as well as the understanding of gatekeepers’ attitudes, thus allowing them to overcome early and ongoing accessing challenges (McFayden et al., 2016; Spacey et al., 2021; Reeves, 2010). Additionally, reflecting upon the process of accessing can point out new variables, thus enriching the research outcomes (Bondy, 2013).
Indeed, reflexivity is a crucial tool for establishing the trustworthiness of research. The data gathered should be constantly subjected to reflection and used as a guiding source for potential strategies to guide future research. Even after the research is complete, reviewing the research process through the lens of retrospective reflection can be a beneficial learning tool for future research (Christian et al., 2021; Spacey et al., 2021; McFayden et al., 2016). The first and second authors' use of reflexivity during the data-gathering stage of their criminological investigations enabled them to engage in self-analysis.
Following, we summarize the first and the second authors' experiences in the fieldwork, namely, of accessing participants and conducting research with subjects selected by gatekeepers. Additionally, we highlight the strategies the authors employed to overcome these challenges, which may be helpful to other researchers facing similar difficulties.
Gatekeepers' access control can evolve from granting or denying access to research settings to a more profound institutional control (Witham et al., 2015), such as turning a blind eye to potential participants' will and right to freely engage with research (McFayden et al., 2016). In addition, institutional or organizational interests concerning the study could influence gatekeepers’ decision of approval (Christian et al., 2021; Stevens, 2020; Davies & Peters, 2014; Cheek, 2011; Sampson & Thomas, 2003; Stalker et al., 2004). Jeffords (2007) approached 15 state juvenile correctional research departments in the U.S. and concluded that the nature of the topic influenced gatekeepers' decisions to grant access, the methodology used, the amount of data requested, the extension of their control over the research outcomes, and their personal profit.
Personal beliefs, values, and perceptions can also be critical factors in gatekeepers’ attitudes and decisions regarding research projects (McFayden et al., 2016). Research that is perceived to promote positive social exposure of an institution's work and values (Crowhurst, 2013; Clark, 2010; Jeffords, 2007) or to fit into local or political-institutional priorities (Stevens, 2020; Clark, 2010) may influence the decision to allow access. In contrast, gatekeepers' unwillingness or fear of the potential impact of research on the organization's reputation may impair research (Spacey et al., 2021; Davies & Peters, 2014). Due to the dissemination of research outcomes or their misinterpretation, moral panic (Krinsky, 2013) and fear of media or social backlash (Gray, 2013) are also influential factors over a gatekeeper’s decision towards granting access to settings, documents, or participants. Stevens (2020) suggests the process of giving access depends on a balance between the perceived quality and utility of the research and its potential adverse effects on the organizational environment, resources, and institutional routine.
Moreover, the disregard for the researcher’s explanation or poor communication skills can lead to a misunderstanding of research methods, objectives, or ethical approvals (Williams, 2020; Fitz-Gibbon, 2017; McFayden et al., 2016; Clark, 2010), which can also influence the gatekeeper’s judgment over a research proposal (McFayden et al., 2016). Denial factors for granting access have also included uncertainty about the research methodology and objectives, worries about potential participant inconvenience or adverse outcomes (McFayden et al., 2021; Davies & Peters, 2014; Rugksa & Canvin, 2011), and the presumption that participants lack the motivation to participate (McFayden et al., 2021). According to McFayden et al. (2016), the main reasons for gatekeepers denying access to participants (children) were poor communication skills, misunderstanding or uncertainty about research methodology and objectives, fears of potential negative consequences for participants, and the assumption that no one would want to participate in the study. External factors, such as a supportive organizational environment, positive participant behavior, and a receptive attitude from researchers, on the other hand, may incentivize gatekeepers to take an assisting and flexible position (McFayden et al., 2016).
In addition, political, economic, and social pressure have also been noted to have a toll on the level of support given by gatekeepers (Spacey et al., 2021; Williams, 2020). The abovementioned issues also led to staff turnover and organizational priorities shifts, thereby preventing researchers from accessing participants (Spacey et al., 2021). This understanding of a gatekeeper's character is especially critical when the research depicts high ethical risks, including a sensitive research topic or a sample of vulnerable populations (Christian et al., 2021; Bracken-Roche et al., 2017; McFayden et al., 2016) such as children, youngsters in unequal relations, related to dangerous lifestyles or violent and abusive backgrounds (Davies & Peters, 2014; Gray, 2013) or who are in prison (Davies & Peters, 2014).
Although it is particularly difficult to use gatekeepers to recruit a sample for research, reflexivity is still lacking (Williams, 2020; Davies & Peters, 2014). Indeed, as we will highlight next, the interconnections between trust and rapport are crucial in sample recruitment, specifically in how the researcher interacts with gatekeepers to access participants.
In the first author’s study, the selected participants included professionals working directly and indirectly in the Portuguese asylum system. These professionals assume leadership positions and/or contact asylum seekers and refugees daily. The first step in gathering participants was establishing contact with different institutions and other national entities involved in the Portuguese asylum system. These contacts were sought via the internet. Most initial connections were made via email to the institutions involved in the Portuguese asylum system. The study's objectives were briefly explained in the emails, and the researcher's contact information was provided so that professionals from institutions could call and clarify any remaining questions. The professionals who responded to the email gave the researcher the name and contact information of the institution's director or someone in a higher position. This was done so that the researcher could request that they approve the professionals' participation in the study. As a result, in this study, those individuals were regarded as gatekeepers.
In the second author's study, sample recruitment was targeted at professionals from the Portuguese security forces. These professionals directly intervene in cases related to organized crime in Portugal. As a first step, the second author sent formal letters to the National Directorates/General Commands of the Portuguese security forces' institutions to obtain a sample for the study. The study's objectives were briefly explained in these letters. A summary of the doctoral project was attached along with the interview script, informed consent, and declarations from the study's supervisors reinforcing the information provided by the researcher. The Portuguese institutions that wanted to collaborate assigned an institutional supervisor to contact the researcher and learn more about the research project. Furthermore, the participants for the study were chosen by the institutional supervisors. They gave the researcher their email and phone numbers so that the researcher could contact them and set up an interview. For these reasons, institutional supervisors were considered gatekeepers in this study.
In both of their studies, the first and second authors scheduled online meetings with the gatekeepers to facilitate face-to-face interaction. This approach was used because the authors were aware that, in terms of establishing trust and rapport, it is fundamental for the researcher to establish eye contact (Bolderston, 2012). Furthermore, they were also alert about the common conditions and negotiations around accessing participants through gatekeepers (Petintseva, especially with sensitive research topics, and, for that reason, they used both verbal and non-verbal language to create an inviting environment during the meetings that could generate full engagement with the research project.
All issues related to informed consent, the participant's privacy, anonymity, and confidentiality were meticulously explained and guaranteed. Additionally, during these online meetings, the authors presented the topic and objectives of their studies and their motives for engaging in research. Likewise, the authors responded to all of the questions posed by the gatekeepers and frequently repeated their discourses. This was to confirm that the meaning they attributed to the researcher’s discourse reflected the research project’s principles and objectives. Throughout the meetings, the authors also tried to convey their willingness to look back or rephrase the information provided to the participants if they did not fully understand it. The authors emphasized the importance of conducting research in their respective fields of criminological investigation at the end of the meetings. The invitation to participate in their research projects was also renewed.
The strategies used by the first and second authors allowed the gatekeepers to feel involved, valued, and engaged in the research project. This was a crucial factor in enabling the gatekeepers to trust the research projects' rationale and establish rapport with the researchers. As a result, the gatekeepers proposed that professionals be included in both studies. It is also worth mentioning that the authors invited gatekeepers to be included in their recruited sample. In both cases, however, they declined the invitation.
In the case of the study conducted by the first author, it must be disclosed that some of the gatekeepers that agreed on an online meeting refused to point out participants from their institutions, stating that the professionals in question did not have the expertise, know-how, or methodological experience regarding the topic under research or that they did not have the time to engage in the study because they were filled with work. This situation created some challenges for the first author, who had to contact more institutions than was initially thought to recruit participants for her study.
Similarly, in the second author’s study, some of the participants pointed out by the gatekeepers took several months to reply to the emails. For that reason, they were not included in the sample. This was particularly problematic in data analysis due to the imbalance in the number of interviews conducted in the security forces institutions. As a result, we agree with Gomes and Duarte (2017) that institutions' time does not equal researchers' time.
Ethics committee approval is the first step in any research project's ethical procedures. There has been an increase in the authority and control range of ethical committees and regulations in the social sciences (Monaghan et al., 2013; Hammersley, 2009). Failure to comply with the ethical requirements imposed by such committees can result in the loss of funding or even the suspension of the research process. In addition, the increasing ethical regulations may be perceived as too time-consuming, expensive, and hard-working. They may also condition the research methods adopted, discouraging further research on certain topics, groups, and settings (Hammersley, 2009). Additionally, long waiting periods for approvals may disrupt the researcher's rapport with the intended participants and deteriorate their bonds. As a result, researchers may experience anger, frustration, worry, ambivalence, guilt, contempt, and anger (Monaghan et al., 2013; Hammersley, 2009).
Furthermore, when it comes to investigating “powerful” subjects, ethics questions in criminology seem to be more difficult to ask. This is especially true compared to research on victims, vulnerable groups, or delinquent young people (Faria & Eski, 2019). Likewise, when considering the ethical obstacles of conducting research with subjects selected by gatekeepers, it is crucial first to analyze how or to which extent ethics approval committees influence reaching out to participants through gatekeepers. On this matter, Faria and Eski (2019) provided thoughtful insight into how researchers can be ethically assessed and what challenges they can experience with ethics committees (ECs). The purpose of the authors' reflection was to gain a better understanding of (university) ethical policy in the current (neoliberal) context and to analyze whether current research ethics can perhaps be regarded as a control mechanism by and for the 'powerful' (Faria & Eski, 2019). Both studies conducted by the first and the second authors presented in this article received the approval of the Research Ethics Committee of the Faculty of law and criminology of the University of Porto. Before data collection, this was a crucial step that did not impose significant difficulties: it was not necessary to make changes to the doctoral projects; the Committee took less than three months to approve the two studies in question; and no additional information (such as contact details, for example) was requested about the gatekeepers. Still, researchers must make critical ethical decisions beyond the bureaucratic processes of getting the approval of ethical committees and beyond the negotiations with gatekeepers to access participants.
Indeed, after gaining access to a setting, research can still be undermined by gatekeepers' power to obstruct sample selection, data collection, and information sharing by the participants (Spacey et al., 2021). Furthermore, gatekeepers may indirectly impact the research setting by swaying the participant’s attitude toward the research and by conditioning the answers provided by them (Spacey et al., 2021; Kay, 2019; Riese, 2019; Miller & Bell, 2012; Reeves, 2010). It has also been suggested that a participant's willingness to cooperate may be influenced by their personal opinions about the gatekeepers who referred them to the research and the type of relationship established between them (Riese, 2019).
For Sampson and Thomas (2003), gatekeepers may influence the researcher’s well-being. In instances where they purportedly cooperate with researchers, gatekeepers may permit access without the knowledge or consent of those to be studied or draw researchers to a limited selection of individuals (Fielding, 200). Furthermore, increased levels of frustration, stress, and worry in researchers have been reported when they face challenges imposed by gatekeepers (Spacey et al., 2021), which negatively impacts their performance (Spacey et al., 2021). For Singh & Wassenaar (2016), ethical problems can emerge if and when gatekeepers are somehow coercive in prompting the participants' involvement in the research. Power dynamics within institutional environments are very relevant. Gatekeepers may show a greater or lesser interest in allowing or rejecting access to their information, space, staff, and subjects for research purposes (Faria & Eski, 2018). Furthermore, gatekeepers can fill obstructionist and facilitative roles and attitudes regarding the choice of personnel to participate in the interviews and offer theoretical guidance on what kind of information these same people may or may not report to the researcher (Petintseva et al., 2020).
We stress the importance of researchers being aware of these constraints when gatekeepers are used to access participants (Clark, 2011) as they may be pre-selecting participants - potentially leading to bias in data - or somehow forcing them to take part in research - potentially leading to poor data and ethical constraints, as will be showcased next.
In the studies conducted by the first and second authors, the interactions with the participants pointed out by the gatekeepers presented ethical issues. These issues concerned the participant's willingness to be part of the research and the participant's knowledge of the research topic. Before the interviews started, the participants were reminded of the research objectives and reassured of the confidentiality of their data and the anonymity of their participation. In addition, participants provided both signed and verbal informed consent. However, during the interviews for both studies, some of the professionals mentioned several times that they had been appointed to participate in the research by the director of the institution or someone in a higher position. The fact that the recruitment process was frequently mentioned raised concerns for the first and second authors about the willingness and voluntary participation of the professionals.
In the study conducted by the second author, in particular, three participants were allegedly unable to attend the interview face-to-face or online. Instead, they asked for the interview to be sent to them by email. A few days later, they replied to the email with written responses to the questions asked. These cases reinforced the researchers’ doubts about these professionals' voluntary participation.
In the first author's study, some of the participants appointed by the gatekeepers to be interviewed did not provide meaningful intel regarding the research topic. This subsequently impacted the detail and richness of the data collected. During the interviews in these specific cases, the participants' discomfort about some of the questions asked was quite noticeable. It led to awkward silence, followed by a refusal to answer the question due to a lack of knowledge or an off-topic answer. The first author reassured the participants that they did not have to worry about not knowing the answers to all the questions. She encouraged them to continue the interview and move on to the next question as quickly as possible. Nonetheless, some professionals' uncomfortable and insecure attitudes during the interviews created more doubts than certainty regarding the gatekeepers' intentions in choosing a particular professional to give the interview.
In both studies, it became apparent to the first and second authors that some of the professionals interviewed were neither enthusiastic nor comfortable participating in the research. While it was not possible to be sure whether some professionals were “forced” to participate in the studies or if there were other reasons for being less engaged in interviews, this brought awareness to the researchers about the need to adequately address ethical issues of using gatekeepers to access data and participants.
Petintseva et al. (2020, pp. 60) suggested that “being fully aware of the skills, dilemmas, and tricks available to the researcher will help her or him to keep (more) in control of the process, this way ensuring higher chances of access to high-quality data.” Likewise, we acknowledge that, although it may be difficult to fully understand which interests and/or biases gatekeepers may have towards the research, researchers should be aware that gatekeepers can impact the extent and circumstances under which participants agree to be part of the research. To effectively address and manage this ethical challenge, we suggest that researchers' skills and judgment are crucial to identifying or accommodating subjects' willingness to participate in research.
We also emphasize the importance of considering the emotional impact of the participants' posture on the researcher when acknowledging the ethical challenges of any research. Lee and Lee (2012) affirmed that the emotional burden of the researcher when doing fieldwork is frequently dismissed or minimized. Ray (2015, pp. 2) stressed the importance of reflecting on the researchers’ relationship to the research subjects, that is, “the dynamic rhythms of multi-positionalities.” For Singh and Wassenaar (2016), the attitude of the interviewees can have a significant impact on the researcher’s interaction and may even compromise the ability of the researcher to collect data in certain situations. Moon (2007) argued that reflexivity and critical thinking could be used as powerful tools to acquire a deeper insight into the impact of the participants on the researcher and vice-versa. In this section, we examine the emotional effects of interviews with participants identified by gatekeepers on researchers.
Because of the posture taken by some of the participants mentioned in the previous section, the first and second authors experienced frustration, anxiety, and disappointment during those interviews. These feelings created very challenging moments where the authors tried to balance the interactions with the participants and the need to collect data on the sensitive topics being researched. As Petintseva et al. (2020) pointed out, respondents may adopt defensive behaviour when questions are asked about sensitive matters, especially when gatekeepers fail to inform the participants about the research objectives or the researchers themselves.
Clark (2011) also stressed that when dealing with sensitive matters, respondents are likely to give evasive or even misleading answers, potentially sharper if they feel their spontaneity has been limited because they were “sent out” by someone else. As both studies dealt with sensitive topics and all participants were selected by gatekeepers, this was considered to be an important issue for analysis. For example, in the study of the second author, we highlight the case of a participant who tried to conduct the interview herself. It became clear that the participant had access to the interview script, which was only provided in advance to the gatekeeper. This hampered the second author's ability to position herself as the interviewer and, therefore, as the person in charge of the research.
Inevitably, all these issues impacted the quality of the data collected for both studies. Additionally, the first and second authors felt more engaged with participants who were enthusiastic and interested in taking part in the research. In those cases, the authors could easily convey the necessary conditions to establish trust and rapport with the participants. That allowed the interviews to be smoothly conducted and created room for the researchers to ask more “uncomfortable” questions, such as about malpractices and challenges faced in the work field. These interviews were also longer, more detailed, and had more pertinent and richer data.
We recognize that collecting data from subjects willing to participate in research has a positive emotional impact on the researcher. As a result, this impacts the quality of data collection and analysis. In addition, we also argue that when researchers are aware of their emotional responses and the quality of interactions triggered by the participants’ posture, this will probably improve their ability to stay engaged and to actively search for ways of collecting significant data, despite the feelings of animosity encountered.
According to Emerald and Carpenter (2015), the researcher has the ethical responsibility of preparing for the emotional demands of conducting sensitive research. To prevent harmful consequences for researchers, a supportive and safe space is essential (Fenge et al. 2019). The first and the second author of this paper found supportive and safe spaces in research peers with previous experience conducting interviews with samples recruited through gatekeepers.
This article focused on the field notes of the first and the second authors regarding the complex and dynamic circumstances of using gatekeepers to access participants for their criminological studies and its impact on data-gathering and analysis processes. Fenge et al. (2019) argued that preparation by the researcher is fundamental when dealing with challenging data and concluded that many of the researchers had very rudimentary preparation in dealing with the problematic matters and circumstances they were confronted with. Although the first and second authors embarked on a self-reflection process to prepare themselves for the data collection phase, they put reflexivity into practice in the fieldwork to overcome some of the challenges presented to them. As discussed in the previous sections, several significant issues emerged while accessing and conducting research with participants selected by gatekeepers. As part of our effort to contribute to the field, we will next present suggestions regarding negotiations with the gatekeepers and the participants that they selected. These suggestions will be most beneficial for peers conducting similar research.
We consider that the quality of interactions between researchers and gatekeepers can be improved if the researcher adopts a total transparency policy towards gatekeepers. This can be achieved by informing them about the methodological and ethical issues in place throughout all data collection phases and not only at the start of the research. This regular feedback may positively affect the gatekeeper's attitude toward research: continuously reiterating the research status, outcomes, objectives, and methods may give them a sense of control over the research process. Furthermore, being aware of and receptive to the gatekeeper's position and making them aware of their importance in the research may help them envision the researcher as a credible and professional individual, thereby assisting in developing a trusting bond between them and the researcher. Indeed, building trust and rapport were identified in both studies presented in this article as fundamental steps to establishing a trustworthy relationship and reducing power dynamics between the researchers and the gatekeepers.
Concerning the participants, we believe that, in terms of power, careful consideration and ongoing vigilance on the part of the researchers of the participants' positioning within the research project is critical. Likewise, we suggest that the willingness and voluntariness to participate in the research should be evaluated based on the participants' engagement during data collection. This is done by analyzing the participants’ body language, speech, and mood. When confronted with participants' refusals to respond, evasive responses, physical discomfort, anxiety, apprehension, and/or displays of annoyance, hostility, or rage, the researcher must make the personal decision to include or exclude the data provided by those subjects from the research results. If the researcher opts for inclusion, he/she must provide personal disclosures about the ethical constraints encountered and their impact on data collection, analysis, and results.
Furthermore, we stress that researchers should not confront participants about their low engagement and willingness to answer the questions. This is because it could be perceived as a direct criticism of their behavior and attitude, thus further negatively influencing the answers to other questions in the interview. Instead, researchers should try to overcome these uncomfortable situations and find solutions for participants to get excited and collaborate with researchers. This is done by understanding the importance of their role in scientific knowledge and regarding the implementation of social policies.
This article contributes to qualitative criminology by highlighting that reflexivity must be used in qualitative criminological research. This will improve research practices and ethics when conducting studies using gatekeepers to access participants and collecting data with subjects selected by gatekeepers. As opposed to being static, research practices and ethics are ongoing processes that must be evaluated and ensured throughout the data collection process. We recognize that reflexivity is an essential tool for establishing trust and rapport, compelling researchers to consider the fundamental guiding principles that underpin the research's credibility, and promoting potentially valuable strategies for overcoming research challenges (Bryman, 2016; McFayden & Rankin, 2016; Lumsden & Winter, 2014; Reeves, 2010). Moreover, we argue that reflexivity is crucial for highlighting and problematizing the processes of power dynamics in using gatekeepers to access specific research settings and participants in criminological research.
Concerning practice implications, we claim that the role of gatekeepers can be crucial for criminological research and that access must be continually negotiated with gatekeepers and participants. Furthermore, we believe that it is vital to engage gatekeepers with the research at its early stages and to guarantee that they are kept informed throughout data collection because working on a positive relationship between a researcher and a gatekeeper contributes positively to a research’s success (Fitz-Gibbon, 2017; Crowhurst, 2013; Clark, 2010; Wanat, 2008).
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With a master’s degree in woman and child abuse, Gabriela Mesquita Borges is currently an Invited Professor at the University of Minho (UMinho), teaching in criminology. Her research interests include critical criminology, victimology, feminist and refugee studies, and gender-based violence. She is also very interested in the use of qualitative methodologies in creating scientific criminological knowledge.
Ana Guerreiro is a Doctor in Criminology and Assistant Professor at the University of Maia (UMaia) and at the School of Criminology, University of Porto (FDUP). Her main research areas are gender violence, gender studies, organized crime and prevention policies. She has experience on several national and international projects focused on gender-based violence prevention, and national and international publications in scientific journals, books and book chapters.
Leonardo Conde holds a bachelor’s degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice and is currently finishing his master’s degree in Criminal Sciences – specialization in Criminology from the University of Minho. He has an advanced specialization in foundations for scientific research. He lectured some classes by invitation related to issues such as Criminology, Cybercrime and Police Models. His main topics of research are epistemology of criminology, research methodologies applied to criminology, and white-collar criminality.
We thank all gatekeepers that pointed participants for the two studies presented in this article as well as the participants themselves.
The PhD work of the second author was supported by a doctoral grant by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology [FCT - SFRH/BD/143202/2019] from 2019 to 2021. The doctoral grant was co-financed by the European Social Fund and the Portuguese Ministry of Science, Technology and Higher Education through national funds.