By Maria Dalton–
‘Who else have you been speaking to?’ ‘Do you know so and so? How are they? Will you tell them I said hello?’ As I write these questions, I am smiling, transported back to my research experiences in Northern Ireland over the past two summers. One of the lessons I quickly learned was that everybody knows somebody, a circumstance that has a constant interplay with research.
My PhD explores the role of women as peacemakers and peacebuilders in 1990s Northern Ireland. I advocate for a holistic approach to writing ‘the Troubles’ that focuses not just on governments, political parties, and tribal organizations, but also recognizes that peace is painstakingly built by ordinary people. It is these bottom up networks of communities, led in a significant majority of cases by women, that produce enduring connections.
Due to the comparatively understudied nature of women’s lives in comparison to their male counterparts, I decided that interviews would be an appropriate method to support my historical methodology. These interviews have proved to be the most exciting, revealing, and memorable components of my thesis. As well as relying on my own research, I hoped to also enlist the expertise of my participants on the ground in order to reach out to further individuals. Within academia, this practice is termed ‘snowballing.’ The sheer number of connections, both within and between communities, that I encountered was evidence in and of itself of the power of human connections. These interpersonal relationships interacted with my research in a number of unanticipated ways.
For example, there tended to be an immense curiosity amongst the people that I worked with to know who else I had spoken to. “Who else have you been speaking to?” A simple question, but one with great impact. In some cases, the individual asking had a deep respect for my other participants. “Oh, I think she’s great”; “Did she recommend me to you? I’m chuffed with that”; “She’s my friend. If she thinks you’re OK, then I think you’re OK.” This would often make for a more comfortable environment. I would sense a relaxing on the part of my interviewee and an early establishment of trust between the two of us, in part, determined through their pre-existing interpersonal relationship with others. Everybody knows somebody.
In some instances, the “who else?” question acted as a way to reconnect former friends and colleagues. As my research is interested in groups that existed twenty years ago, a number of members are no longer in contact. In these circumstances, I found that almost the opposite of snowballing occurred. At the end of an interview, my participant would ask who else I had contacted. When I mentioned the names of individuals (whose names I had permission to share) who they were no longer in contact with, their faces would light up, “Oh how are they?”; “When you next speak to them would you tell them I say hello?” As well as ‘externally’ researching from the outside, I felt that I was becoming a part of what I was researching by briefly re-connecting women who had shared such significant parts of their lives together twenty years previously. I was now part of the everybody knows somebody dynamic.
In other scarcer instances, the current participant did not have a favourable opinion about some of the organizations I had contacted. This never affected their willingness to speak with me. What it did, on occasion, alter was whether the participant in question wished their contributions to my project to be identifiable or anonymous.
Regarding anonymity, all my participants were given the choice as to whether their interviews be attributed to them or coded. The fact that I have a number of anonymous participants meant that the “Who else?” question initially made me feel very uncomfortable. Because of anonymity, it was not always possible to share names. Furthermore, even those participants who have elected to be identifiable can change their mind, withdrawing consent at any time. As a young researcher I quickly learnt that, whilst it seems a simple ask, the “Who else?” question is an inevitable one that requires careful navigation.
Another lesson I learnt regarding interpersonal relationships was the value of informal conversations. Informal discussions have formed just as important a part of my research as formal interviews, whether it be lunch-time conversations with librarians, coffees with other historians working in the field, or friendly chats with relatives of the women who intrigue me so much. Often as students, if we elect to use interviews as one of our main research methods, we expect that our work will be judged on the number of interviews we have. The race is on to speak to as many people as possible. I did want to speak to as many people as possible, because I felt this to be the best way to create an inclusive piece. However, for me, what became more privileged was building relationships. It is through these relationships that I feel I can write a genuine narrative from which those who have participated can feel ownership. Sometimes a smaller number of good quality conversations can give far better insight than a large number of rushed ones.
One of, if not the, biggest debate to dominate the blog posts of Writing the Troubles during its first year has been discussion over the suitability of interviews as a method. For me, despite their associated limitations, interviews were a sensible way to reach out to those not considered to be institutionally powerful and whose voices have been less well documented. However, as we begin a new year of writing ‘the Troubles’, I have used my blog post to discuss not the question of whether we do interviews, but, once we have elected to employ them, how we do so. I view the willingness of individuals to share their personal viewpoints and histories with me as a great responsibility and privilege. What we give back as researchers when we conduct interviews and how we ensure we do this in a responsible way is something that I know is often thought about amongst researchers and ethical bodies, but rarely verbalised. Interviews require a different set of skills than those employed when writing within the four walls of our offices. They require the navigation of a complex interplay of inter-personal relationships, between yourself and your participants, as well as between the participants themselves. Everybody knows somebody in Northern Ireland. Both a small demographic size of 1.8 million, and strong communal sensibilities, no doubt influenced by a legacy of violence, perpetuate this dynamic. For any researcher embarking on interviews in Northern Ireland, this dynamic will become central to your operation. Who have you been speaking to? Have you spoken to so and so? Will you tell them I said hello?
Maria Dalton is a PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews. Her thesis explores the roles of women as peacemakers and peacebuilders in Northern Ireland between the years 1990-2000. Maria’s thesis makes commentary on the contributions of women at a community, political, and British governmental level, as well as exploring the wider relationship between gender and peace. Maria has taught on undergraduate modules on International Relations at the University of St Andrews and has previously published with The Irish Times.