Get under Their Skin and in Their Shoes. How to Address the 'Race-of-interviewer' Effect in Qualitative Research with Ethnic Minorities
Van Kerckem, Klaartje
Sociology University of Ghent Gent, Belgium
When it comes to studying minority groups, it is often suggested that it is better to opt for a researcher that belongs to that minority group, in order to gain access to respondents and accurate answers more easily. The fact that the ethnicity of the researcher has an effect on how respondents answer, is commonly referred to as the race-of-interviewer effect. Although the term usually refers to answering tendencies/biases in interviews, I will use it more broadly to refer to the effect the ethnicity of the interviewer has on the process of gaining access to the field, finding respondents and the actual interviews.
During my own research, I discovered how difficult it is for a white female researcher to gain access to (members of the) Turkish community in Belgium. I discovered, however, that the race-of-interviewer effect does not necessarily have a negative impact on gaining access, finding respondents and the quality of qualitative data.
In this contribution, I argue that the ethnicity of the researcher does have an effect on the behavior of a possible respondent, but that this effect is not necessarily negative, at least, if one applies rigorously certain basic ethnographic rules. The guidelines and rules presented in this article aim to address two issues that are the result of a difference in ethnic background between respondent and interviewer. First of all, the researcher needs to address an imbalance in power. Because the population under study belongs to a minority group, and the researcher to the majority, there might be a tendency to distrust and unwillingness to cooperate, and social desirability in answering patterns on the part of the respondents. Secondly, the researcher needs to be aware of the fact that members of the population under study might see him/her as ignorant. Although this also has its good side, addressing this might be necessary to show commitment and win respect of the respondents. By the development of practical strategies to address the race-of-interviewer effect, this paper aims both at improving research methods in ethnic studies, and at contributing to the discussion on the impact of the researcher's identity.