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  • Writer's pictureZhiqi Xu

Strategies for Reaching “Hard-to-Reach” Groups in Community Research

This is a report on my talk at the How to reach "hard-to-reach" groups event organized by Erasmus Initiative Vital Cities and Citizens (VCC) Erasmus University Rotterdam. See the original report here.

On the 12th of February 2024, the Erasmus initiatives organised the How to Reach “Hard-to-Reach” Groups event in collaboration with the EUR Lustrum Committee. Around sixty attendees, including students, researchers, residents and municipality workers, gathered in the Hefhouse for an afternoon of discussions and sharing experiences on this topic. This event report highlights the key insights gleaned from the gathering. 

The event started with an introductory video interview with a Rotterdam resident who answered questions on research fatigue and what researchers can do better when approaching and including residents. He shared his experiences, emphasising the importance of treating research participants as individuals, not as part of a group, and giving something back to them. It is also essential to ensure that participants benefit from the research project.

Engaging communities through connection and understanding.

Afterwards, the event moved on to a plenary session of LabyrinthOpens external, a research agency renowned for its expertise in engaging with "hard-to-reach" groups in Dutch neighbourhoods. In their experience, research fatigue and low response rates are common because residents often question the benefits of university and college living labs. While researchers and students benefit, what about the neighbourhood residents? There is a significant issue in reaching disadvantaged groups, raising doubts about the validity of many research reports. Labyrinth: "To effectively engage such communities, personal connection, cultural understanding, and language fluency are crucial.”

Then, the attendees split up into groups to attend parallel workshops.

Collaboration with diverse stakeholders

Zhiqi Xu gave a workshop on her experience with engaging "hard-to-reach" populations in her research. Zhiqi is a PhD candidate at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) of Erasmus University Rotterdam and has done fieldwork in rural areas of China. She highlighted the importance of engaging hard-to-reach populations across various disciplines. While scholars often prioritise engagement methods, pre-research preparations and community partnerships are equally crucial. Effective engagement entails ethical considerations, participatory communication, and building trust through sustained efforts. Zhiqi also discussed how collaboration with diverse stakeholders is essential, challenging assumptions shaped by Western academia. Zhiqi: “Co-designing research with local partners is imperative due to the contextual nature of engagement. Despite frustrations and barriers, fostering a supportive scholarly community and persisting through challenges can lead to profound rewards, enriching understanding, and driving meaningful social change.” 

Finding the right research participants from scratch

Dr. Erwin van Tuijl hosted a workshop and interactive session about finding the right research participants from scratch. Erwin, one of VCC’s postdoctoral researchers, is currently leading the project "The Installer in the Post-Industrial City". Erwin: “The greatest value of research often lies in adapting existing frameworks to new contexts, yet this can pose challenges when researchers are unfamiliar with the specifics of the new environment.” In this workshop, Erwin addressed strategies for overcoming these challenges, focusing on three critical scenarios: entering a new city, exploring a new research theme, and navigating tensions between funders and participants. Solutions discussed included conducting thorough background research, engaging in informal discussions with knowledgeable individuals, and immersing oneself in the context. Additionally, fostering trust and diverse perspectives, utilising multiple networks for data collection, and providing incentives for participation were identified as important measures to reduce bias. These insights were derived from a group discussion, a plenary session, and the collective experiences of those present at the workshop.

Building relationships and giving back

Researcher Seline Westerhof and Dr. Ir. Emiel Rijshouwer hosted a workshop on research fatigue and moving from fatigue to reciprocity. Seline shared her first encounter with 'research fatigue' in Rotterdam, where people recoiled at the mention of 'university' and 'researcher'.Emiel talked about his experience with residents in Reyeroord, a neighbourhood in Rotterdam, on a study about networks and partnerships for establishing a youth hub. After sharing their experiences, participants formed groups to work on case studies on 'building relationships' or 'giving back'. Each group member took on a different role: resident, initiator, researcher, or municipality. This approach led to interesting discussions and produced insightful outcomes. In the plenary part of the workshop, key points were revisited. It is crucial to meet with all stakeholders beforehand, clarify the research objectives, and discuss what can be promised. Researchers or municipalities must be present in the neighbourhood, allowing residents to share their stories and experiences. As a researcher, showing vulnerability and humanity is important. Seline and Erwin: “Research should have immediate impacts, not just years later. It is essential for research to be sustainable, passed on, and owned by everyone, not just a project. Additionally, universities need to change; currently, there is little room for ownership beyond researchers (e.g., in papers) or finances for long-term projects.”

After the parallel workshops, the attendees returned to the main room, where they could continue their conversations and discussions with a drink. All in all, the event brought different groups together to discuss this topic. It facilitated numerous discussions and provided insights into how researchers can better understand residents' perspectives and improve their inclusion and approach to residents.

*illustrations by Lybrich Wieringa

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