Issues In Educational Research, Vol 11, 2001   [Contents Vol 11] [IIER Home]

Gaining access: Introducing referred approval

Roger J. Vallance
Notre Dame University Australia


There are many introductory texts to the research process for the beginning qualitative researcher, and many of them are excellent. And most of these texts deal at some depth with the issue of sampling: types of samples and how to organise samples to best answer the research question. Yet no text I have found for my students addresses the question of how to get the people to agree to being part of the inquiry! Anderson and Burns (1989) address problems of working in classrooms and how to go about gathering data, and Creswell (1994, pp.147-149) notes that gaining entry can be a problem. Cohen and Manion (1994, pp.354-359) and Bogdan and Bicklen (1992, pp.80-81) focus on gatekeepers, Berg (1989, pp.130-132) comments on the usefulness of guides and informants, Punch (1998, pp. 193-195) that there needs to be coherence between research design and sampling , and Lee (1993, p.131) suggests that sponsors can be made problematic by issues of prestige. Fontana and Frey recognise the importance of accessing a setting, locating an informant and establishing rapport (1994, pp.366-367) but give few guides on how to achieve these aims.

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.

Why this is a problem

No empirical researcher is going to answer a research question in the social sciences unless people agree to participate in the research process! Yet often the beginning researcher is concerned to spend time refining the interview schedule, determining how many participants might be required, developing a sense of context relating tacit knowledge and relationships, and how long it might take to gather the data, analyse the texts and develop the subsequent papers. All these issues are critical for a defensible research project, but it is also important to ensure that the sample provides participants who are going to be appropriate and informative of the research question.

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.

First thoughts about access

I work with beginning researchers, helping them to acquire research skills. When I ask the question: 'Why should someone spend the time to work with your research project?' I get a range of answers that indicates that the neophyte has yet to experience the resistance to research commonly encountered. In general, the responses to my question can be sorted into one of three categories.

Interesting question

The most common student response reflects the researcher's own passion for the research question. The research question itself is powerful, engaging, worthy of spending time to answer because the answer itself will be beneficial, useful and help towards improvement in the field of endeavour associated with this study. For the researcher there is often a parallel passion for the process of research (Heinrich, 2000). However, not all potential research subjects can be expected to share the same passion. It is difficult for the researcher to communicate a feeling that is grounded in months of concentrated reading and in the short time that she/he might have to convince a prospective subject. Translating the essentially private, internal, academic motivations of the researcher for someone who is disconnected from the field is a challenging task. If that is the only appeal a researcher can make to subjects, it might suggest that participant numbers are going to be very small and arguably non-representative and, worse, uninformative of the research question.

Power of inquiry

Another common response to my 'Why should they bother?' refers to the researcher's own strong sense of the pursuit of knowledge, and that the task of gaining new knowledge is itself a valued activity. While not wanting to discourage this conviction, it might be fair to suggest that it is not universally shared. Indeed, many potential participants might respond that 'that is OK for you, but I have a lot of practical problems to deal with and do not have the time!' or words to that effect. One could imagine that the majority of research requests that find their way to the trash bin might have been met with this rationalisation. The knowledge enterprise is not universally honoured. My own observations would suggest that this second motivation, pursuing knowledge, is weaker than the first in promoting respondent agreement to the research activity.

Association with the university

Some students tell me that they expect subjects to be somewhat honoured or pleased that a researcher asks them to be involved, especially if they recognise and esteem the name of the sponsoring university or organisation. And this might be the case for some folk, but what about the majority of respondents who went to either another university or none at all? Does this imply that only students associated with prestigious institutions can hope to gather an adequate sample of respondents?

Making much of who you know

While some of the above constructions might influence possible research subjects, I think that there are other ways to engage the interest and potential cooperation of people. One such means is what I will call "Referred Approval".

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.

Another way of looking at a research question

It might be appropriate to review the very origin of one's desire to tackle a particular research question. While there are clearly theoretical and methodological reasons within each research question, the approach a qualitative researcher will take is influenced by her/his personal beliefs, history and present circumstances. Entwined in all these factors are people: people in our history; people whom we know, work with and have read about. So, it is possible to site the development of the specific research question in the network of relationships the researcher has had with people. These are real people, not just names on papers read: people we know, talk to and with whom we interact.

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.

An example of using referred approval

Part of my work has been with those training to be teachers in four-year BEd courses and one-year postgraduate Diploma of Education programmes. In 1999 I was interested to investigate the career development towards skilful practice of mature teachers. I titled my project "The Excellent Teacher" and approached some principals of high schools I knew through earlier, work related visits. On requesting an interview time from each principal, I indicated my wish to access a group of excellent teachers on his/her staff. I wanted no more than a recommendation of particular teachers and was prepared to negotiate within strict, stated, ethical guidelines the teachers' further involvement which would be completely voluntary. I did not define 'excellent teaching' for the principals, instead I said that their own integration of multiple information sources gave them far better, grounded and realistic judgements of those on their staff who were excellent as classroom teachers. All I said, by way of guidance, was that I thought each high school might have between two and six excellent teachers on its staff. These schools each had between 70 and 90 full-time teachers teaching Years 8 to 12 (average student ages 13 to 17 years).

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:

Referred Approval is a way of approaching potential participants that increases the likelihood of shared meaning, based within a socially significant framework and invites people to share in a common purpose within agreed bounds of ethics and research commitment.

It is not insider research

This approach to accessing possible research subjects is not to be confused with insider research. Insider research is usually considered to involve a particular stance or relation of the researcher to the field being researched. The researcher claims, usually explicitly but the claim may be implicit in language, demeanour, or other overt signs, to know what is going on within the field and to be one of the same group as the research subjects. A special case of insider research is covert research, where the researcher does not reveal her/his status and claims to join the group for another reason and seek inclusion without mentioning a research agenda (Punch, 1994, pp.90-94).

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.

Maintaining credibility

It is not claimed that this technique guarantees success, nor that subjects will persist throughout the life of the research project. These issues are the direct responsibility of the researcher and depend on his/her interactions with the participants.

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.


Any empirical study requires a suitable sample for credibility and usefulness. A research question might have theoretical, practical and personal importance, but without the appropriate respondents the research will be weakened. Referred Approval is one way that a researcher may access potential participants at least for a time long enough to put a convincing request for research participation. Referred Approval uses the approval of others, who are significant in work or personal terms, to validate the request for time and effort which each researcher asks of a potential respondent. This validation is likely to increase the extent of a positive response and hence generate a more inclusive sample.

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: 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.

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