Studying Homeless and Incarcerated Persons: A Comparative Account of Doing Field Research With Hard-to-Reach Populations

  • Janani Umamaheswar Southern Connecticut State University
Keywords: gatekeeping, field research, interviewing, grounded theory methodology, access, prison, prison research, homelessness


In this article, I discuss the process of conducting research with two vulnerable and hard-to-reach populations (homeless and incarcerated men) in three research locations characterized by varying levels of gatekeeping: a prison, public streets in an urban city, and a residential facility for homeless men. I argue that, despite the obstacles to independent research that gatekeepers (officials who can grant or deny researchers access to participants) pose, research with vulnerable, hard-to-reach populations in different field sites reveals some of the benefits of using field sites characterized by gatekeeping and strict rules to which researchers must adhere. Many of these benefits, however, go unacknowledged in discussions of access in qualitative studies—especially in the penological literature. I conclude that, instead of shying away from qualitative prison studies, researchers should take advantage of the benefits that prisons offer as field sites.


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Author Biography

Janani Umamaheswar, Southern Connecticut State University

Janani UMAMAHESWAR is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at Southern Connecticut State University. Her research interests are in the areas of gender, incarceration and punishment, the life course, and qualitative research methods.