Monthly Archives: February 2022

Semi-Structured Interviews and Participatory Analysis in the Times of Zoom

In the midst of the first COVID19 lockdown, I accepted an offer to move across the border to start my ESRC funded 1+3 PhD programme, exploring youth entrepreneurship in the Western Balkans. This came off the back of a few years working intermittently within this area, both in a research and project management capacity, and seemed like a natural next step to progress my career – plus, what else is there to do in a global pandemic besides dedicate your life to research? However, the very pandemic that pushed me to pursue my PhD, also (not surprisingly), placed numerous barriers on my ability to conduct research for the +1 parts (SSRM) of my ESRC funding, resulting in my research being conducted across June-August 2021 through Zoom.

            My SSRM thesis focused on the role of social capital in young people’s (between the ages of 18-30) experiences of entrepreneurship in Kosovo, in which three key thematic areas were explored: institutions, education and personal networks. Previous studies more generally exploring entrepreneurship in Kosovo highlighted the role of weak institutions, outdated education systems and not ‘knowing the right person’ as being some of the biggest barriers for entrepreneurship, therefore, I wanted to explore these factors within the specific sub-domain of youth entrepreneurship. Young people are more recently out of the education system, therefore could better attest to the strengths or weaknesses of the current systems in place and are assumed to generally have less experience navigating the institutional environment, and to have lower levels of social capital than their older counterparts. Therefore, a series of semi-structured interviews were scheduled for July 2021, and a comprehensive interview guide with enough questions and follow-up questions to last a lifetime was drawn up and approved by my supervisory team.

Semi-Structured Zoom Interviews

            We’ve all possibly got to the point of Zoom fatigue now, where staring at our reflections as we speak into the void on endless calls in the corner of our living room has lost its novelty (if it ever had any to begin with). Due to an inability to fly out to Kosovo, due to COVID19 and ethical restrictions, I had to develop a research design that was compatible with the digital world I needed to navigate, could get me the information that I needed and the ability to probe further, and fit into the hectic schedules of the young entrepreneurs involved in this study. Semi-structured interviews are used for the ‘recording and analysis of the participants’ subjective perspectives’, and for collecting ‘everyday theories and self-interpretations in a differentiated and open way’ (Hopf 2004). I was able to recruit twelve participants for hour-long Zoom interviews, in which we discussed the intricacies of the entrepreneurial experience for young people. Participants recounted tales of endless bureaucracy, outdated education systems and the strengths of networks and connectivity in times of struggle and reflected on the ways they were using their own experiences to help upcoming and aspiring entrepreneurs to navigate the same entrepreneurial environment they themselves have been navigating. Whilst conducting Zoom interviews didn’t allow me to garner the same rapport that meeting over a cup of coffee in a local café would have allowed for, it did allow me access to young people I possibly would never have spoke with if I had conducted research in-person – young people from rural areas of Kosovo, or young people who fit our interview into their car rides between meetings as their schedule was too hectic to afford for anything else.

Participatory Data Analysis

            Considering my positionality as an ‘outsider’ was important to my research design, as my position as someone with lived experience and practitioner experience in entrepreneurship in the UK context would inevitably skew my own understanding and perceptions of the entrepreneurial experience that many of these young people have gone through. Therefore, upon conclusion of the data collection and transcription stages of my research, I decided to conduct a participatory data analysis. According to Abma et al (2009), participatory research seeks to represent ‘silent and silenced’ voices to a range of audiences, creating a shift from participants being the ‘object’ of research, to participants becoming partners in the research process. Initially, participants were invited to participate in a one hour zoom call, where we reviewed the transcripts and thematically coded the findings together, however, participants were busy (such is the nature of entrepreneurship in a pandemic), and it became difficult to schedule this call in with many participants. Instead, participants were sent my analysis of the interview transcripts, mess and all, in which I explained the process and the key points I had pulled from our interview, and participants were given the chance to correct my analysis, so it accurately reflected their experiences and opinions, and not my own biases. Participatory analysis demands a suspension of the search for a ‘singular knowledge’ owned by ourselves, and focuses attention on reflexivity and performance, rejecting a ‘single voice’ and avoiding claims of a ‘dominant knowledge’, such as that created by a singular researcher (Sims-Schouten et al 2007). This process allowed me to see the key areas where my biases had impacted by analysis, and empowered participants to make sure their story was being told in their own words, and to add any additional thoughts and feelings that had been missed first time round.

Reflections, Lessons and Moving Forward

Conducting interviews virtually enabled me to reach people that I never would have reached and provided both interviewer and participants with the comfort of being in a familiar, homely environment whilst exploring the intricacies of our own entrepreneurial experiences to-date. It allowed me to look into the lives of my participants in a way that a formal café meeting may not have allowed for, with participants showing me personal items on their desks that kept them motivated and pushed them to work harder – such as a chessboard, family photos and inspirational quotes. Participatory analysis allowed me to better represent the views of my participants and allowed me to see my own shortcomings due to my own biases surrounding entrepreneurship. A few participants contacted me after the study to discuss how the participatory analysis component made them feel like they had a voice in the way that they were represented, which spoke more to me about the merits of participatory research than the many theoretical debates I had encountered when choosing to embark on that approach.

For my PhD research, I am now focusing on the specific experiences of young digital-social entrepreneurs and will continue to incorporate interviewing and participatory analysis as my key research methods. Whilst I am aiming to conduct interviews in-person, I will also keep the door open for virtual interviewing due to it’s ability to connect me with young people from towns and cities and levels of ‘busy-ness’ that I might not be able to schedule into a fieldwork trip. Participatory analysis strengthened my connection to my participants and provided them with the opportunity to correct any biases I had, empowering them to represent their own voices, therefore, this will be a central component to my research going forward. I will specifically seek out the time to conduct more intricate participatory analysis with my participants, scheduling in Zoom meetings to screenshare and discuss my analysis with each of my participants to ensure that I am fairly and truly representing their lived experiences in the work that I do.

Bibliography

Abma, T. A., Nierse, C. & Widdershoven, G. A. M., 2009. Patients as partners in responsive research: methodological notions for collaborations in mixed research teams. Qualitative Health Research, 19(3), pp. 401-415.

Hopf, C., 2004. Qualitative Interviews: An Overview. In: U. Flick, E. v. Kardorff & I. Steinke, eds. A Companion to Qualitative Research. London: SAGE Publications, pp. 203-209.

Sims-Schouten, W., Riley, S. C. E. & Willig, C., 2007. Critical realism in discourse analysis.. Theory & Psychology, 17(1), pp. 101-124.

“Been there, run that!”: Reflecting on the pandemic

I’m writing this fresh from a crisp Winter jog near Pontyclun. I moved to the area recently and, not knowing many places to explore, tried a run that I’d seen others complete on a well-known activity tracking App.

Someone commented that the route was deceptive, but with a steady pace and the top in sight I thought to myself, “that wasn’t so bad!”. What I didn’t appreciate was that the ‘summit’ I’d reached (picture, right) was fake news – and several bigger climbs were needed. Three miles later, my beetroot face and I finally reached the top.

On my plod back home, I was thinking about how my morning summed up a typical PhD journey. After all, we sign up for a PhD despite people eagerly pointing out how strenuous the route is. However. we’ve not run a ‘normal’ post-doctorate challenge; the Coronavirus pandemic forces us to tackle some of the trickiest elevations and undulations. As we continue to work from home, many of us still need to juggle our academic endeavours with other uncertainties. As a part time PhD candidate with a young family, I’m still ‘dealing with’ unforeseen childcare needs and competing pressures from my non-academic employment. However, I press on because of my wish to make a difference in a subject area that’s of long-standing interest – investigating the nature and organisation of waste crime in Wales. You can read more about my research here.

My interest in this area comes from my non-academic work for the organisation responsible for regulating the waste industry in Wales. With these connections you’d assume that my methodological approach is straightforward, even in these uncertain times, on account of an ‘insider’ status benefiting access to data and participants, and the development of professional experiences that enable strong challenges and opinions.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t been that simple. Waste management has been affected enormously by the pandemic, with huge increases in waste production (especially clinical waste), household recycling centres being closed for long spells, and regulators modifying the way they police the industry to ensure staff work safely and in line with Government restrictions. These factors are all seen as causes of increased illegal waste activity during the pandemic… something I’ll look to explore!

However, from a methodological viewpoint these developments have completely changed the nature of the industry, the validity of regulatory data and the availability of participants. I’ve also seen first-hand the pressure on regulators and policy makers to respond to the pandemic, whether by publishing temporary regulations to act to certain matters, by coping with staff shortages, or by needing to support mutual aid requests from other agencies. These factors, combined with key contacts juggling their own complex personal circumstances, have (understandably!) put my PhD way down their list of priorities.

In the early stages of the first lockdown, I used my time to discuss plans, and potential alternatives, to address these setbacks. As time’s passed, I’ve come to realise that the changes we face aren’t temporary, and our challenges aren’t going to be resolved by simply extending our deadlines. It’s been important for me to move beyond the “list of worries” or anxieties over the future of my project, towards a state of mind that looks to find alternative perspectives on the challenges I’ve faced academically. In doing this, what I’ve realised is that running isn’t just analogy for the PhD. There are many things enshrined in my weekly routine as a runner that have helped me.

I thought I’d share three key ones with you.

  • Run a different route

When the Welsh Government restricted the amount of time we could exercise, it meant that I was forced to find shorter, more local runs. While completely understandable, there was a frustration that I couldn’t safely continue my status quo. In fact, these different routes have greatly improved my running experiences – so whilst being creative and going out of my comfort zone, I was still achieving the outcomes I wanted: fresh air, a clear head and fitness. Within the context of my research, I’ve taken new paths to address my research questions. I’ve scrapped plans to ‘get out’ in the field, deferred data requests to ease pressures on key staff in participating agencies and staggered my interviews. I continue to make changes to my research questions – even in year 3 – so it really is never too late to think about a fresh perspective or element for your project. Have a chat with your supervisors and read as broadly as you can around other methodological techniques.

  • Don’t train alone

On a race day I rely on so many people: spectators, fellow runners, volunteers and pace setters. Ultimately, we can only perform at our best when surrounded and supported by others. Our research is no different. In a post-doctoral environment, it can be hard to ask for help when we’re struggling, particularly when working virtually and dispersed. However, we’re all surrounded by understanding research participants, inspiring peers and supportive supervisors, so make sure you learn from – and encourage – the people around you. Pose questions. Test ideas. Ask for advice. And don’t forget… there are still loads of opportunities to discuss your ideas with others. I recently presented my progress to the Cardiff Centre for Crime, Law and Justice, which was the perfect way to get fresh ideas for my project, practice presenting some results and plans, and get feedback on them.

  • Measure your progress positively

I regularly scroll through my activity tracking App to check the progress I’ve made. The issue is I only really focus on two measures – the number of miles I’ve run and the pace I’ve set. The same can be said for our research. We always seem to focus on the number of hours we’ve sat at your desk or the number of words we’ve written.

For anyone reading this who’s new to the PhD I’d encourage you to look beyond this kind of #GoHardOrGoHome progress monitoring. After all, the pandemic continues to generate more significant and long-term realities for us. So it’s vital we focus more on things like the quality of our outputs, on our creativity and innovation during challenging times, and on the skills, expertise and academic nous we’ve picked up along the way. You never know, the latter point might come in handy… as when the time comes to justify our methods and approach to external examiners, the effects of the pandemic on our work, the mitigations we’ve chosen and our justifications for these will surely be the perfect answer.

Mentioning ‘external examination’ has probably made us all daydream about our post-doctoral finish lines. This is some way off for me, but I hope that this blog has helped to remind you that, in spite of the unique, challenging and sometimes overwhelming nature of our PhD journey at the moment, the sense of achievement and the experiences gained at your end point will be a sure way of forgetting the slog…

Pob lwc a dal a ti pawb. Good luck and keep going everyone!

Martyn Evans
Cardiff University
Twitter @MartynEvansNRW