I spent the time between September 2014 until August 2015 creating the London ‘sample’ and from January 2014 onwards was also doing fieldwork with the children as they started to join the study. The study is based on a heterogeneous sample that is emblematic of different life experiences as those relate to each city. That all sounds lovely (doesn’t it?!) but finding children, and their families, to take part in an intensive and time- consuming piece of work is, however, a different story. As I quickly discovered.
Following advice, we had planned to locate the London fieldwork in two contrasting areas of London that were characteristic of rapid social change, and different phases of gentrification. I also originally thought to recruit children via schools and services in these areas.
So, I spent the first three months of fieldwork trying to ‘break in’ – or so it felt- to schools and services in Hackney and Hampstead. During that time, I spoke to a number of people who lived and worked in each in order to get a sense of these areas. Some took me on tours, others opened their homes to me, or gave up their study and work time to share their views and experiences of living and working in these areas. These were really wonderful and fascinating conversations which I very much enjoyed, and which gave me a good insight on community biographies and the ebbs and flows of social change in Hackney and Hampstead over the last 30 years.
At the same time, I was spending an inordinate amount of time trying to get heads of primary schools and service managers on the phone to ask for their support in advertising the study to parents and children in each area. It makes sense to go via schools or services for children for recruitment, I thought. Where else would I find high concentrations of children, some of whom might decide to take part in the study?
I have a lovely spreadsheet documenting successive failures to make contact with heads and managers and a testament to what a terrible idea that turned out to be. I tried gaining access through contacts of contacts: partners of friends of colleagues, fathers of colleagues who had worked closely with schools in one area, a colleague whose children went to a local school. These contacts provided me a brief audience in one community school in each area. Flyers went out in one school. Zero response rate. The head of the other school was very enthusiastic about the project and made a commitment to introduce me to parents as well as handing flyers out. Then, like a first date which you thought was a hit while all the while unaware of the metaphorical spinach between your teeth, I never heard from him again, despite repeated follow up emails.
The story with local council run services for children and families was similar. There, I was struck by the possessiveness of services towards families: I heard the words ‘our families’ a few times. And despite explaining that all I was asking was to advertise the study and let families decide for themselves, I was told that even for that I would need to go through longwinded local ethical clearance (the study has comprehensive ERC and Sussex Research Committee Ethical clearance). I know that it is standard practice to go through local ethical clearance if you are doing research on experiences of that service but I’m still not entirely sure why we can’t trust each other’s systems for ethical clearance enough to allow a low-risk activity, such as a researcher leaving some flyers and approaching some families to tell them about the study, to take place.
I did eventually recruit two children directly by advertising in one school (via the colleague/school parent route) but the rest of the 15 children in the sample were not recruited through schools. In early February, disappointed and frustrated with how slowly recruitment was we made two decisions as a team (we had similar challenges in Athens and Hyderabad where recruitment also followed a similar pace).
The first was to go pan-London. I have been doing research in London for over 10 years and have excellent contacts elsewhere in the city including in local authorities. I was never entirely comfortable or convinced by the idea of being located only in two areas. London is a tapestry of privilege and deprivation often in the same city block – although increasingly these differences are being flattened with the rise of absentee capital and large infrastructure projects like Cross-Rail. Rapid social change is a cross-cutting city trend; we could stay in a single street or spread out. Going pan-London (and pan-Athens and Hyderabad) has meant more travel and is more time consuming for us as researchers but it has been rewarding as we are getting to hear about childhoods in parts of the city not often focused on in popular constructions of London and helpful in achieving that all-elusive ’nowhere in particular’ approach to sampling (Miller, 2008). Ultimately, the pragmatics of knowing ‘gatekeepers’ personally meant recruitment to the study started to pick up pace.
But making contact with known professionals in child and youth organisations was not the only avenue for recruitment. On a cold, and unusually bright winters day during February 2015 half-term I hit the South Bank with 100 questionnaires which I used to approach parents with children. I don’t know if it was the sunshine or just the families I chanced upon but I recruited three families in two hours that Tuesday afternoon. You don’t need permission to walk up to completely strangers out in public; and people will tell you quickly enough if they don’t want to be bothered. Finding the rest of the sample was a case of making contact with after-school clubs and other smaller community organisations; small enough for the directors or organisers to pick up the phone themselves and respond to my query.
I am extremely grateful to all those colleagues, friends and strangers who helped with making contact; and especially to those then-strangers who took a punt on a random researcher roaming the South Bank (and trying not to look too desperate!).