How to reach 'hard-to-reach groups' as a researcher?

An interview on bridging distance and building trust

Researchers may find it challenging to reach specific groups within our society. "As a researcher, you have your own identity, social network, and way of working, which may not always align well with those of specific target groups," says Vivian Visser. In this interview, she and Kjell Noordzij, both researchers at Erasmus University Rotterdam, share their experiences with 'hard-to-reach groups,' bridging the gap, and building trust.

1. Why are some groups challenging to reach for researchers?

Researcher's social network and approach

Kjell: "Certain groups of people may not be part of your social network. Additionally, it can depend on how we establish contact. Researchers prefer emailing and calling or sending a questionnaire. However, these traditional methods of contact are inadequate for many people."

Distrustful of institutions

Kjell: "During my doctoral research, I examined political discontent among less-educated citizens. This group typically has more political distrust and is dissatisfied with other institutions. Many of these individuals have strong opinions about politics but feel they are not taken seriously and are therefore hesitant to participate in an interview."

Vivian: "I can relate to that. For my dissertation, I investigated how governments invite citizens to take initiative and how citizens receive these invitations. It was challenging for me to find less-educated citizens, also because of their aversion to institutions. Just the word 'municipality' already puts off many people. Someone once said to me, 'Ugh, I'm not going to talk to a student about that.'"

Lack of connection with the research topic

Kjell: "In my current research, I study support for sustainability among less-educated citizens, who often support sustainability policies less. A major challenge here is that the people I meet have no interest in the topic and are, therefore, more difficult to engage in participation. A group can also be difficult to reach because they do not feel a connection with the central theme of the research."

Vivian: "Some people also think they have nothing valuable to say about a particular topic. I often hear, 'What do I know about that?' I have to emphasize that there are no right or wrong answers. We are interested in their experiences and opinions."

Kjell: "Yes, some don't see themselves as legitimate actors for participation."

Vivian: "When we think of hard-to-reach target groups, we tend to immediately think of stigmatized and marginalized groups, but a group that we also find challenging to reach in our research is less motivated civil servants."

2. How do you establish contact with groups that can be somewhat difficult for researchers to reach?

Kjell: "Using your network is the easiest way. Additionally, you can go to places where many people gather from the group you want to speak to or reach them through the media they frequently use. For my sustainability research, I advertised in newspapers that are widely read in specific municipalities."

Vivian: "During your PhD, you have time to go out, for example, a few evenings to the pub. In postdoc research, there is less time for that. That is challenging because it takes time to establish contact and have the most equitable conversation possible. People have invited me to their homes for a conversation, and it turned out they had cooked for me!"

Kjell: "You must adapt to the group you want to speak to; it takes time and attention. And once you have contact, you have to adapt to their schedule, for example, if people can schedule you for half an hour in the program of a pre-planned event."

3. Once you have contact, how do you convince people to participate if they are distrustful or feel distant from the research topic?

Bridging the gap

Vivian: "Equality is crucial in this regard. One of my most successful moments recruiting respondents was during a bingo night in the local pub. There was a group of people who always attended and were very good at it. I went there with a friend, adopting a very posh accent. At a certain point, that group started making fun of us. That broke the hierarchy. It also happened because we were on their turf."

Kjell: "You shouldn't go to such conversations as a university lecturer in a suit, indeed. What helps is finding similarities. If you're at someone's home and you see, for example, a plant that you also have at home, you can talk about that. And it also helps if participants can explain something to you, as Vivian says. I had heard from some men that they could play billiards, so I asked them if they could teach me. This way, you are not just the researcher who wants to talk to people for the study; you seek connection and work towards equality, which also benefits the conversation."

Vivian: "It's about being yourself and finding connection. This has to be genuine because people see through it if you're playing a trick."

Building trust

Kjell: "In my research on political discontent, people, for example, were concerned that their opinions would be seen as controversial. You have to show people, in various ways, that you are genuinely interested in their opinion so that they share it with you. What really helps is to speak to people who know each other in a group discussion. This means that you are a guest in their midst."

4. How do you ensure that participants look back on their involvement with satisfaction?

Kjell: "It's important to give participants financial compensation as a token of appreciation. Furthermore, I try not to promise anything I can't deliver and aim to ensure their participation is a pleasant experience. What people often give as feedback is that they feel I am genuinely interested in their opinions. They feel that they are truly being listened to. And they appreciate it when, if they ask me to, I share my experiences and perspectives at the end of the interview."

Vivian: "Yes, reciprocity in a conversation is important: that you both share your perspective on an issue and make it enjoyable. I always check afterwards if they enjoyed the conversation. Recently, someone said, 'I was a bit apprehensive, but I actually found it a very pleasant conversation.'"

Do you want to learn more about this topic?

On February 12, 2024, the Erasmus Initiatives are organising the "How to reach hard-to-reach groups" event at The Hefhouse. The event will also address questions like "Are Rotterdammers tired of research, and how do you deal with that as a researcher?" Read more about the event and register here.

More information

Vivian and Kjell are both postdoctoral researchers within the Erasmus Initiative Vital Cities and Citizens. 

Vital Cities and Citizens 

With the Erasmus Initiative Vital Cities and Citizens (VCC) Erasmus University Rotterdam wants to help improve the quality of life in cities. In vital cities, the population can achieve their life goals through education, useful work and participation in public life. The vital city is a platform for creativity and diversity, a safe meeting place for different social groups. The researchers involved focus on one of the four sub-themes: 

  • Inclusive Cities and Diversity 

  • Resilient Cities and People 

  • Smart Cities and Communities  

  • Sustainable and Just Cities 

VCC is a collaboration between Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences (ESSB), Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication (ESHCC) and International Institute of Social Studies (ISS). 

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