The manner in which the research question is formulated is investigated. While the theoretical basis for a research question is necessary, it is argued that research questions grow out of a particular nexus of personal interests, history, experiences and relationships. It is claimed that presenting a proposed question in terms of its human dynamics increases the chance that a favourable and positive response can be elicited from potential sample members. Ensuring that the sample is a informative and relevant to the research question is a vital first requirement for validity claims of the research.
Some researchers, particularly market researchers (Chiswell, 1991, p.38; Burns and Bush, 1995, p.241) and researchers in some large quantitative studies, offer incentives and gifts to stimulate a response or increase the range of people who might respond. Qualitative researchers have generally avoided this approach, although not all (Mitchell, 1998, p.17). Qualitative researchers are often concerned with smaller sample sizes because they want to explore the research question at greater depth than a statistical design might require or allow.
This article will look at some aspects of the problem of gaining access to a suitable number of research participants for a defensible qualitative study. The term empirical research is applied to all research that records entities, events or relationships as data (Locke, Silverman & Spirduso, 1998, p.23). Hence, empirical research includes quantitative and qualitative research methodologies.
The experience of some researchers, and by no means is this restricted to those who are new to the activity, is that many a research project is crippled or at least damaged by a lack of participants. It is hard to get people to be involved in research, especially if there is no obvious reward for their involvement. And many researchers are suspicious of rewarding research subjects due to the uncontrolled bias that the reward system might introduce (Mitchell, 1998, p.17). People are busy and might be less inclined to offer time when there is no incentive. Further, a literate and well-informed population is now well versed in the foibles of some researchers and the less-than-ethical approach they might take. These factors have diminished peoples' readiness to open themselves to the questions and probes of face-to-face research. It might be that as researchers value more the personal engagement of interviews and other qualitative methods, their participants are becoming more suspicious of exactly the same activities.
The essence of my contention can be summed up in the oft-quoted saying; 'It is not what you know, but who(m) you know'. In a sense, this is analogous to snowball sampling: using one research participant to indicate others who can be equally or more informative (Sarantakos, 1998, p.153). Instead of using contacts to widen the sample as in snowball sampling, the suggestion here is to use one's contacts and relationships to gain the vital, initial entry into the field, where one can engage with possible research participants.
There is a second thread to the understanding of Referred Approval. The initial contact person, while not necessarily being part of your research sample, is someone who encourages potential sample members to participate by approving, often in an informal way, of your topic, method and person.
Both these aspects of referred approval are illustrated by an example from my own research in progress. This discussion occurs below. The example offered demonstrates how 'it is who you know' helps access to the research field and that the implicit approval within a referral encourages potential participants to agree to becoming part of the project.
The qualitative researcher might, in fact, be well advised to think about grounding one's question not in a theoretical perspective so much as a network of relationships of people who are potentially informative of the question. The usefulness and viability of a theoretical perspective is not without challenge (Thomas, 1997). I am not trying to denigrate the role of a methodological perspective so much as to emphasise the role and importance of relationships, networks, histories and life stories. Emphasising the importance of relationships is itself constructing a theoretical perspective (Schwandt, 1994, pp.128-130).
The research question might develop from a certain perspective, methodological and theoretical, that has power within the academic discipline. But when it comes time to gather participants to investigate the research question, it might be more useful to turn the research question on its side and look to the human contacts and influences that have fostered this interest, your research question. What has brought you to valuing this question? This question can be unwrapped as 'Who and how your relationships have interacted with you to develop this research interest within you?' Seeing your question from this angle allows you to phrase your approach to potential participants so that they can share the human perspective and participate in your energy. Approached this way, the people you identify as useful to your sample are more likely to become participants.
This approach can also be used at second hand, in other words referred. People you know can be asked to recommend you to those who are likely to be useful and informative subjects, and in this way, vouchsafe your credibility to these potential participants. The following example might illustrate this approach.
These four principals nominated a total of 19 teachers. I approached these teachers initially by letter, followed by a personal phone call to arrange a meeting to explain the research project in more detail. These explanations were fitted around my school visits, so I was able to take advantage of personal contact rather than a phone conversation. Sometimes I talked to people in staff rooms or interview rooms and at other times in staff common rooms. I could outline my ideas for the research and answer questions as they arose. I was then able to ask them to consider participating in my study. In my view I had two strong points promoting their participation. The first point is that the research project was focused on 'excellent teachers' and most professionals, even the humble, warm to that praise. My second point was that the principal had nominated the teacher. It was up to the teacher whether she/he would agree or not, but the principal's recommendation pleased every teacher.
Despite this project entailing a minimum of four in-depth interviews with each participant over a period covering two school years, not one teacher declined the invitation to be involved in the research project. That an approach to busy, time-conscious teachers in the middle of the academic year netts 100% agreement is worthy of note. Certainly, there was a sense of honour being nominated by the principal: they reported that they liked the implicit recognition of their teaching skills, and perhaps they found the research project itself interesting. The point I am emphasising is that the approval of the principal's recommendation of particular staff enabled me to contact and invite potential participants to become part of the project. Thus, the principals' referral and approval gained access to, and a potentially positive response from, the nominated teachers. Conversation throughout the data collection with participants has confirmed an early suspicion that without this principal approved approach any letter would have been immediately discarded, "I'm just too busy to be involved in those things". Yet this comment came from those who have maintained involvement for two years!
To sum up my approach to possible research participants: I used my contacts and relationships with the secondary school principals to recommend and sponsor my research. Nominating staff members cost the principals little and enabled them to show appreciation for particular staff, and they had no further role or involvement in the research. Their nominations enabled me to present an attractive 'spin' on my research and encouraged a very high 'sign-up rate'. The essence is that the referral from another whose opinion is held to be of value, and the implicit approval of the research effort, increases people's openness to an approach requesting involvement. This is what the term Referred Approval denotes. Referred Approval, as one way of developing a sample, is in harmony with the assumptions of symbolic interactionism. These assumptions can be listed as:
The term 'insider research' pertains to the relationships between researcher and subjects and may have consequences and biases within the analysis of research data (Tewksbury & Gagne, 1997). In contrast, this discussion of Referred Approval focuses on a way of developing a research sample that is useful to answer the research question at hand, adequately representing the variation in human factors considered pertinent, within reasonable limitations, to the domain of study.
Presumably, the researcher would need to convey that he/she is directly and personally responsible for the maintenance of ethical standards, confidentiality and anonymity where appropriate and possible, sensible and adequate records and rational and defensible analysis. Without clear initial evidence of these concerns for the participants and the continued maintenance of these standards, participants could not be expected to invest their time and vulnerability in any research project.
It has been suggested in this paper that Referred Approval helps the researcher in another way. Each qualitative research question arises from a nexus of particular historical, contextual and personal influences. By rephrasing a research question in these personal terms, rather than the more methodological terms of the research committee or published paper, the researcher increases the prospect that potential respondents may share sufficient interest to encourage their participation. Those who share a concern about the research question, it might be argued, are the same ones who will be most informative of the research question. This is also likely to increase the prospects of the research findings' claims of applicability and usefulness.
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|Author: Dr Roger Vallance teaches at the University of Notre Dame Australia. His interests include qualitative methods, the career development of professional teachers, and the education of boys and young men. Email: email@example.com Postal address: College of Education, University of Notre Dame Australia, PO Box 1225, Fremantle WA 6959
Please cite as: Vallance, R. (2001). Gaining access: Introducing referred approval. Issues In Educational Research, 11(2), 65-73. http://www.iier.org.au/iier11/vallance.html