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


  • Janina Pawelz University of Hamburg



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


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.


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Author Biography

Janina Pawelz, University of Hamburg

Dr. Janina PAWELZ is a researcher at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg (IFSH) and an associate research fellow at the GIGA Institute of Asian Studies (IAS), Germany. Her main areas of research include urban violence, youth violence, security and radicalization.




How to Cite

Pawelz, J. (2017). Researching Gangs: How to Reach Hard-to-Reach Populations and Negotiate Tricky Issues in the Field. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 19(1).



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