Gatekeepers in qualitative research; not so scary after-all

In our collective conscious gate-keepers have a scary image. They don’t just let people in and out of places, they may control who gets in (and out). Gatekeepers to watch out for and tips for handling

Gatekeepers in qualitative research; not so scary after-all

One of the most efficient ways to recruit or engage people as participants or informants in your research is to gain access to groups of people rather than isolated individuals. And where there is a group of people, you will probably find a gatekeeper.

In our collective conscious gate-keepers have a scary image (think Cerberus the 3-headed beast at the entrance to Hades in Greek mythology, or the stern and fanged Jaya and Vijaya, the gatekeepers of Vishnu's Vikuntha). They don’t just let people in and out of places; they may control who gets in (and out), facilitating and policing access. We tend to think of them in terms of access to physical spaces, but they may be controlling access to people, resources, information, and even the narratives; the story to be told.

Official gate-keepers are easy to spot, even if their official job title is not ‘Gatekeeper’. There are numerous roles in academia that include gatekeeping. Admissions Officers control entrance to a course, Estates officials keep the ‘keys’ along with administrative staff, who may also control access to user-names and passwords, along with IT staff. One might argue that anywhere there is a decision to be made that can either block or progress your research, there is a gatekeeper.

This can all sound a bit intimidating. But it can’t always be an easy task for gatekeepers when there is demand on limited time and resources, and the gatekeeper needs to determine the legitimate right or reason for access. Historically this means that one way to reduce the burden was to deter those without right or reason from even trying. Gatekeepers were scary. Nowadays, whilst they can be intimidating, generally there are social codes, professional codes and governance structures that mean that official gatekeepers act as facilitators for those with legitimate rights to access.

Let’s look at it from the gatekeepers’ point of view for a moment.

1. Gatekeepers expect to be approached for access, and mostly by people with a legitimate reason and/or credentials to prove it. It might be part of their job to sign-post people to ways to get authority to access. Large organisations often have named points of contact, or at least a ‘contact us’ email or phone number. These are the easiest of gatekeepers to approach, although if you use email, the response might not be as rapid as you would like. Before launching into a massive essay about what you want to do, it might be worth checking if you have the right person or department.

2. Gatekeepers also expect that people with no right or legitimate reason will approach them too. If their job is to deter and turn these people away, then being perfunctory and sticking to a script makes their job easier. This can be scary or annoying, especially if you don’t understand why you are being turned away, or you feel your reasons are legitimate. If you are deterred, ask yourself, Is this the only point of access; could I try someone else? Or come back another day, better prepared; sometimes you just get off on the wrong foot, so to speak.

3. Gatekeepers will be approached by people with reasons they find hard to determine if they are legitimate or not. This is where everyone’s life gets harder. In a busy role, it is easier and probably entirely appropriate for them to say no, than listen to you ramble on about what you need. The onus will be on you to present a coherent reason for wanting access; i.e. one that makes sense to the gatekeeper. (Know your audience!)

4. Gatekeepers don’t always have a clear remit and they may have multiple roles. They may be wonderful, helpful people, but it may take one or both of you to realise that you’re talking to the wrong person. Or you are talking to the right person, but because of the variety in their role they’re taking a while to understand what it is you want of them. Again, there is an onus on you to communicate appropriately. If you’re talking to a university administrator, you might get away with the kind of academic language you’d use in a literature review, but then again maybe not.

5. Gatekeepers may get many requests of a similar nature.  The organisation or the people they give access to may be suffering from research fatigue. You will need to be clear about the direct benefits of the research to those directly involved. For example, it is unlikely that a parent whose child has already been involved in medical trials (and found them tiring or negative in some way) will want their child to go through something similar again. Even if it will benefit future children, they may perceive that it is their child paying the cost now. Dealing with gatekeepers who ‘guard’ vulnerable groups requires especial sensitivity and awareness of concerns of those at the receiving end of research. This includes groups who are over-researched.

Tips for approaching gatekeepers

· Do not assume that people will want to take part (even if you think it's brilliant).

· Do not assume mal-intent. Try to build some rapport before making requests.

· There is often more than one gateway in an organisation and the first gatekeeper may pass you on to another gatekeeper. So be prepared to have a short simple outline for initial contacts, and more detailed information as you go along.

· Try to remain emotionally detached from the outcome (Difficult I know: anything that blocks the progress of your study has dramatic implications).

· Do not under-estimate the power of a gatekeeper. They will have their own legitimate agenda, which may conflict with yours.

· Will the gatekeeper be needed beyond initial contact? Keep the details of your gatekeepers throughout your project (in accordance with data management policies). Research can sometimes be like a game of snakes and ladders, and you’ll find yourself back where you started. A facilitative gate-keeper can be your ‘ladder’ back to making progress in your research.

· Some gatekeepers are self-appointed, especially in informal groups. They may be performing a valuable service to their community and may be the best way of accessing the community. Just be mindful of the tale that they tell. Are they really representing the group? What is their relationship like with the group and how might affect what you see and hear? Loyalty to a gatekeeper may restrict what members want to tell you.

Why do we still find Gatekeepers so scary?

The way research is designed and approved in some areas of social research pre-supposes that the way to conduct robust and credible research is to plan ‘everything’ in advance and then gain ethical approval on this basis. Emotions tend to run high when research plans are built on single points of success or failure. By the time we approach a gatekeeper we have invested heavily in the outcome of successfully getting past the gatekeeper. No wonder people feel scared!

The methodological basis of truly qualitative research is that it is an iterative process. I wonder if one of the mistakes we make is to read a lot about the context of our research and use the literature review for the basis of our planning, instead of talking generally to insiders or gatekeepers first. Even if your research is mixed methods, or you do not share my qualitative epistemological values, you could consider building your research in phases with if/then and if not/then alternatives. Have smaller scales of activity, and multiple points of access (even if the method is the same, such as semi-structured interviews). Including gatekeepers in your planning earlier rather than later could reduce the risks to your research, and potentially add to the quality of the engagement with your research participants. Remember gatekeepers facilitate entry as well as deny it.

Any research plan should of course be based on the purpose of the research, but failure to consider the participants purposes, needs, motivations and expectations will result in a limited plan that is vulnerable in a number of areas. Involving gatekeepers, or at least paying close attention to their questions or objections at the planning stage could reduce some of these vulnerabilities, help later stages run more smoothly, such as:

· recruitment of appropriate participants

· greater awareness of the needs of the participants to enable engagement

· engagement by participants in the ways that you have envisaged and positive ways you had not

· retaining participant engagement for the full length of a project

· gathering sufficient quality data

· positive experience for participants engaged in your project and positive perceptions of research more generally

Gatekeepers to watch out for

Legitimate gatekeepers are there to protect people (and resource) from real and perceived harm. Gatekeeping implies a passive or static role, whereby the gatekeeper responds to those seeking to gain entry. Sometime gatekeepers will move into a more dynamic and active role and attempt to control the narrative that emerges from the research. They may for example only introduce you to people who agree with them, or limit your access to parts of a project that have not been so successful. They may be so beguiling and have such a coherent narrative that it is difficult for you see alternatives, let alone pose alternatives or dig deeper, for fear of damaging the relationship and lose access. Just remember research requires you to have an enquiring mind, so it’s worth alerting your gatekeeper/facilitator to this from the outset if you are worried about causing offence.

Beyond fieldwork and the gathering of data, academia has gatekeepers who will guard/control the narrative of a discipline (i.e. the story that it tells of itself). They will for example legitimately reward you with good marks if you demonstrate a sound understanding of that narrative; even more so if you can critique that narrative within normative bounds. Institutions will employ marketing and communications staff to produce and control the official institutional narrative. Beyond the individual institution there will be academic journal editors and reviewers, who will ‘gatekeep’ access to publication. The funding to carry out research will have gatekeepers too. Occasionally, people will control a narrative so actively that they move into a ‘policing’ dynamic where non-normative narratives are not rewarded. Or worse, they may even be perceived as illegitimate and so pursued and punished. Fortunately this kind of ‘witch-hunt’ is high profile, but not common. What is more common, according to findings in our Qualitative Researcher Journeys project, is the systemic issue of gatekeepers on review boards and funding bodies that will block your qualitative research because of a failure to understand, or value, the iterative nature of qualitative research. As a systemic issue you cannot tackle this alone, but you can increase your resilience to challenge, and reduce the vulnerability of your research to single points of failure.

. Really think about where and why challenges may emerge to your plans. Put yourself in their position.

. Talk and listen to people informally to inform your research plans. Work with your gatekeepers, not against.  

. Whilst not all gatekeepers are human (think automated help-lines and chat bots), those that are human will present the range of emotions and attitudes that all humans do. As Ahern reports of their experience of gatekeepers, “once I figured out that human nature is always a variable in research, everything fell into place” (2014:10)

Further reading

Kathy Ahern’s (2014) eye-opening case-studies, Gatekeepers: People Who Can (and Do) Stop Your Research in its tracks describe ways in which their research has been blocked and by whom. Ahern very helpfully concludes that you must learn to appreciate what it has taken them years to appreciate: the human factor.

Hodari et al whose whitepaper lays out “the impacts of policing and gatekeeping in STEM, illustrated with lived experiences of scientists of color who are achieving despite the daunting challenges they face” describe gatekeeping as “a set of behaviors, practices, and traditions, backed up by individual and organizational power to guard the boundaries of the discipline.”

Hodri, Krammes, Prescod-Weinsetinen, Nord, Esquiviel and Assamangan (2021). Policing and gatekeeping in stem safety, security & sanctity. Submitted to the Proceedings of the US Community Study on the Future of Particle Physics (Snowmass 2021).

Whilst aimed at international researchers who are planning research in the UK, this page from UK Research Integrity Office gives some helpful examples of the kinds of gatekeeper you may encounter during the process of participant recruitment.

If you are doing collaborative research, Quirkos, simple qualitative analysis software has features that mean that you can easily show and share the data with your research collaborators and analyse together.  

This University of Nottingham re-usable learning object (RLO) on preparing for field work prompts you to think about your own circumstances and research context in their template research protocol sheet.

Image Attribution. Thom Quine, CC-BY-3.0 Deed, via Wikimedia Commons.