For the most part, most people who do design and market research do not see recruiting as part of the research process, but as something that happens outside of and apart from the field-research. Once in a long while, we have a client with such a short time-frame or such a specific participant need that recruiters are necessary. But we try to convince clients to give us the time to use our own staff recruit on the ground or at the very least, through conversations over the phone. Even when using an outside recruiter, simply taking what you get is sloppy work. Research begins during recruitment, not after you are in the field.
We have found that most recruiting agencies draw from a pool of people who have signed up to participate in focus groups and who have already been “trained” to be participants in that way. Increasingly, this is becoming the case for ethnographic participants, as well. While a good interviewer/participant observer can no doubt get around some of the problems of telling them what they want to hear, not having access to the data generated during the process of finding people to talk to (or letting them find you) is a severe limitation. It is important to remember that recruiters do not see data collection as their role. For a skilled ethnographer, for whom everything is data, this means that they lose potentially important information.
To be fair, using a recruiter is not always a bad idea. Indeed, there are some very good recruiters out there who we trust implicitly. They can add to the insights that come from recruiting, but they are few and far between. These recruiters see themselves as partners with the ethnographer rather than simply playing a transactional role.
Experience tells us that when we’ve used recruiters and our own on-the-ground recruits, the people we pick out are usually the more helpful respondents. Methodologically, the process tells us that we are able to establish trust and rapport during recruitment rather than relying on an awkward first encounter that was scheduled months in advance.
So, from the standpoint of doing what is best for the client, it begs a simple question: shouldn’t recruiting be a part of the process of the project and understanding the local context? The process of meeting and talking to people provides insight into cultural norms. Finding out whether or when they might talk with a researcher, let alone allowing the researcher into their lives on a more expansive basis, is an incredibly important sources of information. This isn’t always an easy task, so it is important to remember the following tips:
- Define the contexts: Where does an activity or practice take place? Defining the contexts we want to examine helps articulate the range of possibilities for observation.
- Define the sample: Who are the people we want to talk with? What are the social and cultural circles that will shape the event. It isn’t enough to define a demographic sample, you need to think in terms of cultural, social, professional and environmental systems.
- Get dirty: Be willing and able to recognize potential participants while you are actually doing the work. Take advantage of the setting and use it to recruit.
Recruiting teaches us about daily life, worldview, and what matters most to our participants. It can tell us volumes about how people conceptualize private and public spaces in which strangers are welcome to visit. Recruiting helps establish a sense of shared experience that leads to a richer understanding, which in turn leads to greater innovation. Ethnography is grounded in the idea of becoming more than a stranger. Without being engaged first hand in the recruitment process, the researcher is losing an profoundly important opportunity.