FEATURE1 June 2009

Don't even go there

What’s the best way to get information you need about touchy personal subjects? Robert Bain investigates how researchers deal with the most taboo topics.

?On 5 December last year the Daily Mail’s Kirsty Walker wrote of how “government pen-pushers” were to “demand to know the sexual preference of millions” in an “unprecedented intrusion into private life”.

That same morning, an article by Andy McSmith in the Independent told of statisticians finally “summoning the courage” to overcome one of their last taboos and ask “Are you gay?”

Both stories reported the Office for National Statistics announcement that it was to start including questions on sexual orientation in its surveys.

If we’re awarding points for journalism, McSmith is the clear winner, having grasped the difference between “demanding” to know and “asking” to know. Walker, on the other hand, was too lost in her frenzy of tabloid outrage to get her head round the subtleties of what was going on.

But regardless of the right and wrong, the contrast between these two reports show the range of attitudes among the public to what may or may not still count as a taboo subject.

So how much do people really object to being quizzed about their private lives by what the Mail refers to as “the clipboard brigade”?

How much do people really object to being quizzed about their private lives by what the Mail refers to as “the clipboard brigade”?

Willing and able
The ONS said its tests had shown that “the vast majority of people are willing and able to answer the question” – and this in a society noted for being reserved.

On the other hand, the Mail’s editors clearly believe the topic still hits a nerve with its two million readers (as further evidenced by the dozens who were moved to comment on the story on the newspaper’s website).

One person who’s familiar with the challenges posed by researching sensitive issues is Heather Laurie of the University of Essex’s Institute for Social and Economic Research, who has the task of managing the UK’s largest piece of longitudinal social research, tracking 40,000 households.

The problem is particularly acute in studies like this where the same respondents are revisited time and again – because if you overstep the mark just once, they may never want to speak to you again.

Laurie told Research the sexual orientation question is one “we’re going to have to ask at some point”, but that it’s being saved for when “the sample has settled down and people have built some sort of loyalty”. It will almost certainly be included in a self-completion section of the survey, to help take the pressure off the respondent.

“The one time we did ask it,” she says, “we had an ‘other’ category and my favourite answer was one lady who wrote ‘housewife’. She obviously didn’t understand the question at all.”

Wealth and debt, she said, is the other big sensitive topic, and questions about that are also being held back until the third wave of the study.

Meanwhile the ONS, despite including the sexual identity question in many of its surveys, is not planning to ask it in the 2011 census, although participants will be able to record civil partnerships as well as marriages.

No coy questions
But while some people will take offence if you ask certain things, others may get upset if you don’t. Gay rights groups have been berating the ONS for some time for being so coy about sexual orientation. After all, this is not some trivial question of political correctness – it has serious practical implications. How is it possible to properly assess and understand inequalities if you turn a blind eye to the size and composition of the group in question?

People like Laurie and her team face a constant balancing act between principles and practical challenges. Some of the touchiest subjects out there are also among the most important, but Laurie says you have to accept that survey research has its limits. “We already ask quite a lot of people,” she said. “So it’s trying to keep the burden of the whole experience to reasonable limits, because otherwise we risk endangering the sample altogether.

“All the recent concerns about data confidentiality and data losses by government departments have definitely not helped. People are concerned about what’s going to happen to this information and whether people are going to know personal things about them. But the Daily Mail reaction of ‘You’re just prying for no reason’ – I don’t think we’ve ever come across that reaction from respondents.”

Softly softly task force
In the qual arena, researchers often have to try to find the answers to difficult questions without asking them straight out. Nicky Spicer is managing director of qual-focused agency Andrew Irving Associates, which prides itself on tackling sensitive topics, mainly for public sector and non-profit clients. Over the years AIA has looked at issues including under-age sex, benefit fraud, incontinence, organ donation and drink driving.

Research asked Spicer how it’s done. “There isn’t much substitute for experience,” she said. “It’s about being incredibly sensitive and knowing when to give people space.”

“The biggest thing about sensitive issue work is people being defensive and how you tackle that. The first thing is not making them defensive in the first place – that’s what you should try and avoid.”

Sometimes the touchy subject has to be broached at the recruitment stage, so that getting people to take part at all is half the battle. In other cases a sample is selected to represent the general public, leaving discussion moderators with the challenge of bringing them round to talking about a particular thorny subject.

Spicer said researchers need to be ready to think on their feet and employ a variety of techniques to tease out people’s thoughts and feelings. “You have to accept that it’s not a straightforward piece of work, there are going to be challenges, you have to constantly re-evaluate. With any piece of qual work you tweak things as you go along, but that’s more true when it’s a sensitive issue,” she said. “It’s always slightly experimental in the early stages.” Maintaining a good collaborative relationship with clients, she says, is key to achieving this flexibility.

“The way we do it with the general public is we don’t really tell them what we’re going to be talking to them about, because we don’t want to alert them to the nature of the discussion,” she said. “We don’t necessarily want them to think too much about it. We find that a useful way into a discussion is to ask them what’s concerning them nowadays. You get a range of issues and they start talking, and somewhere along the line they’ll bring up something related to what you want to talk about.”

“We don’t really tell them what we’re going to be talking to them about, because we don’t want to alert them to the nature of the discussion”

Nicky Spicer

Experience teaches you whether the best results will be gleaned from group sessions of strangers, friends recruited together, face-to-face depth interviews, phone or online work, or more immersive techniques involving spending time with people in their homes.

Some of the techniques employed at AIA show that people’s initial coyness is easy to get over if you give them a chance. Spicer’s colleague Ian Sparham said: “You can allow people the opportunity to remove themselves from the equation and say, ‘I imagine people would think this…’ That way at least you get them talking about it, then you can come round to asking how they feel about it once the topic’s out there.”

In fact, some apparently difficult subjects turn out to be not so difficult after all, says Sparham, as people’s reserve in normal social situations can be a double-edged sword. Sparham mentions projects looking at organ donation and vCJD. “It was interesting because you’d imagine that people would find it quite difficult to talk about these things, and be very closed-minded about it, but actually once the ball starts rolling, they’re really interested. It’s quite noticeable at the end of those group sessions when people say, ‘I actually quite enjoyed talking about subject X for half an hour.’”

Spicer agrees: “It’s surprisingly cathartic for many people, giving them permission to talk about something they may not otherwise feel confident talking about.”

1 Comment

14 years ago

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