Researching Gangs: How to Reach Hard-to-Reach Populations and Negotiate Tricky Issues in the Field

Janina Pawelz


Researching hard-to-reach populations which operate in spheres of illegality and violence is impacted by issues of rivalry, territorial inaccessibility, and distrust, as well as ethical and moral concerns. In this article I discuss the difficulties faced by female researchers carrying out fieldwork with gangs and focus on gender-based and race dynamics, which affect qualitative research in male-dominated spheres. Drawing on LEE's (1995) conceptualization of ambient and situational risks, I outline the risks related to conducting fieldwork with gangs in Trinidad and Tobago's violent outskirt areas. I furthermore stress the researcher's responsibility to survive fieldwork and draw on the privileges I enjoyed and the threats I faced as a young, white female. This study contributes to our understanding of how sampling techniques can successfully reach hard-to-reach populations in high-risk areas and within a limited time frame by introducing a refined sampling technique, the successive approach.


gangs; gender; safety; dangerous fieldwork; qualitative research; violence; conflict; Trinidad and Tobago; Caribbean; grounded theory methodology; expert interviews; comparative case studies

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Copyright (c) 2017 Janina Pawelz

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