Community Experiences of Sectarianism

This study explored community experiences and perceptions of sectarianism, based on in-depth qualitative research within five case study communities across Scotland. The insights obtained provide depth and context to other research about sectarianism, including quantitative survey and national criminal offending data.

3. Observations on the methods used

Recruiting participants through snowballing

3.1 One of the challenges of the topic and title of the research, as one of our team put it, was that we were asking: 'Would you like to talk to me about something thoroughly negative?'

3.2 The subject of sectarianism in Scotland is less taboo than it once was. Nonetheless, it was not an appealing topic for many potential participants - particularly when they are being asked to speak about, and perhaps criticise, their own local community. It was not possible to disguise the topic during recruitment of participants, because it was so strongly focused on sectarianism that such an approach might have been unethical. Our focus was therefore on establishing interest and trust by using the 'snowball' method of reaching participants, and making it clear in our invitation to participate in the research that the project was designed to explore both the existence and absence of sectarianism, in its many possible forms.

The nature of the topic and establishing trust

3.3 We did however have to work very hard to recruit participants. We provided either refreshments or a small payment: this was only mentioned after the participants had agreed in principle to taking part.[4] We found that initial interest sometimes faded when we spoke to potential contacts, despite our emphasising that we were just as interested in hearing from people who are not sure what sectarianism is, who have not experienced any sectarianism or who do not feel that their community is blighted by it. Further explanation usually resolved this, but the problem does demonstrate the value of the snowball approach. It undoubtedly broadened the sample to include participants who were initially reluctant to take part. Several people made it clear during the interview that they had chosen to take part, despite some reservations, because they trusted us and (where there was a third party) the person who arranged the contact with us.

3.4 For instance, one woman interviewee (who came from a different religious background from the interviewer, but had a similar social background) spoke about views that she said she would not normally express:

I can say this because I can identify with you because you are within the same background as myself. So I feel I can … if I felt that there was any animosity between us, you know, I wouldn't be able to speak so freely ... And you can take out what you want and keep in what you want.
(Woman, Interview 1, Edinburgh)

3.5 In several other interviews, we found that participants expected us to tell them something about ourselves before they decided whether they felt comfortable telling us their stories. In the cities and towns this tended to be an explanation about our work or how the team knew each other; in the islands, conversation also covered our families and whether we had any familial relationship with the islands.

Selection of questions

3.6 The contentious nature of the topic was also something we addressed in how we conducted our interviews. We drew up a lengthy set of questions but did not ask every question in each interview/focus group. Rather, the team members familiarised themselves with the questions, then asked them selectively, guided by the stories and responses of the people taking part. Also, where it seemed that the tone or focus of a particular question might inhibit answers, or provoke mistrust, we left it out. Furthermore, we began with general, positive questions before moving on to more specific queries addressing sectarianism. Many of them were concrete questions rather than about abstract concepts.

3.7 We think this method worked well. In particular, the focus on encouraging storytelling and narrative brought out themes we had not anticipated. Given the exceptionally nebulous nature of sectarianism in its many varieties in Scotland, and the gaps in research evidence, we think that this approach was particularly appropriate. It does however place a lot of discretion in the hands of the fieldworker and is not appropriate for work outside a small, closely-linked team.

3.8 We also used a practice developed by ethnographic researchers, in which after every interview and focus group we had a short team discussion by email where the interviewer shared thoughts and asked advice. These observations later became useful for writing the report.


Email: Linzie Liddell

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