I entered into my PhD research on health in Roma communities as a total outsider. What followed was a crash-course in community engagement and building trust.
When I began my PhD research with Roma migrant communities in the UK, I admittedly didn't know much about the social environment I was about to enter. Being from Michigan (where Roma-related discussions aren't really on the agenda), I first heard the term 'Roma' when I was 18 and in my introductory anthropology class at university, and it wasn't until my first day of fieldwork that I met a person from the Roma community. I was a total outsider.
People cautioned me, told me that I would never convince people to take part in interviews and questioned whether I had the wherewithal to really 'live' my research questions. It was therefore with a fair amount of self-doubt that I devised my strategies for making contact with Roma communities.
Approaching the research field
When entering into a research environment, there are two vital backstories to consider: your own and that of the field.
I entered the field well aware of the impediments I would face in engaging prospective participants, some of which were connected with my own outsider profile, and others which had their roots in the personal histories and collective experiences of Roma communities. Having faced centuries of discrimination and abuse - ranging from slavery to forced expulsions to decimation in the Holocaust - Roma communities are, quite reasonably, sceptical of outsiders.
I contacted a range of organisations working directly with Roma communities, proposing that I undertake volunteer work with them and that they, in turn, facilitate my contact with community members. Two Roma community organisations accepted my offer, and I began work first as a volunteer research assistant, and later as a volunteer health advocate.
Lessons in trust
As I began my volunteer work in earnest, I found people to be much more accepting of my presence than the research literature may have led me to believe. Even so, I needed to be constantly cognizant of my role in the field, the way I presented my research and the relationships I was developing with my partner organisations.
Here's what the process taught me:
1. Trust takes time
I didn't enter the field and immediately begin my interviews. Instead, there was a lengthy period of acclimating myself to this new environment and building trust - not only with potential participants in my study, but also with the organisations that had taken me on. I spent approximately the first three months of my fieldwork writing a Roma cultural awareness training guide for health professionals, and was therefore outside of direct contact with community members. At first I was worried: was I wasting vital interview time? Yet in hindsight I see how this was a necessary period of learning about the day-to-day operations of the organisations I was working within.
When partnering with organisations that support marginalised communities, it's important to remember that they, too, have gone through a process of gaining community trust, and they need to ensure that any researchers they allow to access community spaces have an ethos that aligns with organisational goals. Although data collection may be slow, over time a detailed pictures of the wider social environment begins to form, and this is invaluable in contextualising interview data.
2. Give people a reason to talk to you
Once I had established the organisational trust necessary to enter community spaces as a health advocate, I needed to give community members a distinct reason to meet with me. My presence was met with a fair degree of confusion - what was this American girl doing in a Roma community centre? I needed first to explain that I was a student researcher looking at Roma communities and health, yet this didn't exactly inspire people to take part in interviews. So I set about making myself useful. Whether I was helping people to book medical appointments, request interpreters or compose complaint letters about inadequate treatment, I was directly involved in the day-to-day health concerns of Roma community members. With this background of direct health advocacy work, I then had a good jumping-off point for inviting people to participate in interviews, and I could furthermore tailor my interview questions to participants' distinct areas of experience.
3. Learn from the experts
I don't know where I would be if certain members of the community hadn't shown me the ropes. From the early stages of my fieldwork, a community member who was working alongside me as a health advocate served as my guide through the field. He would tell me when an interview question may be too complex for someone with limited formal education, when a topic may be deemed inappropriate for discussion by more traditional members of the community and when the social and cultural background to an interviewee's response may have escaped me. He also introduced me to key informants, and helped to negotiate the researcher-participant relationship at times when cultural and language barriers may otherwise have made participants hesitant to engage with me.
4. Plan your exit carefully
Over the course of my fieldwork, many Roma people have commented that they're asked to take part in a lot of interviews and focus groups, yet they never see the concrete impacts of their participation. Although I have yet to formally exit the field, it will be necessary to negotiate the end of my involvement in such a way that I do not appear to take participants' contributions for granted. To this end, I plan to present my findings in open community meetings, where participants will be invited to ask questions and share their thoughts on future directions for my research.
Being an outsider in the research field isn't a disadvantage - it's a chance to enter a new environment as a blank slate.
It's now been over two years since I first entered into the research field, and I can no longer call myself an outsider. Looking back from this vantage point, I wish sometimes that I could harness some of the wide-eyed enthusiasm for newness that so characterised my early months in Roma community spaces. I remember those first days in the community centres, when I was struck by everything: the way people dressed, their easy bilingualism, the nuances of body language as they moved about the community spaces. I was at once part of the environment and separate from it, and I find that this is the true advantage of entering the field as an outsider: everything is new, everything is novel and you notice it all.