Positionality and Ethics in the Qualitative Research of Migrantsí Homes

by Anna Pechurina
Leeds Metropolitan University

Sociological Research Online, 19 (1) 4

Received: 14 Jun 2013     Accepted: 19 Sep 2013    Published: 28 Feb 2014


This article discusses ethical decisions in the qualitative research of homes, with particular focus on a situation, in which a researcher studies his/her own migrant community. While exploring more common topics, such as negotiating access and receiving permission to photograph within participants' homes, this article will also highlight issues that occur specifically within community-based ethnographic studies among Russian migrants. Using examples from the study of Russian immigrants' homes in the UK, this article raises important questions of social positioning and power distribution within studied community. It will demonstrate the complexities of ethical decision making at different stages of the research process, which reflects the constantly changing relationship(s) between the cultural and social backgrounds and identities of researchers and participants. The insider and outsider role of the researcher is relative and the constant need to balance it, while simultaneously creating difficult ethical dilemmas, often reveals rich data and moves the whole research process forward.

Keywords: Research Ethics, Positionality, Ethnography, Russian Migration, Home Studies, Visual Research


1.1 Russian-speaking migrant communities are still relatively neglected in academic studies, particularly compared to Polish (White 2011; Rabikowska 2010; Burrell 2009; Morawska 2001) and migrants from other Central and East-European accession countries (Williams and Balaz 2002; Black and Markova 2007; Okólski 2001). The changing character of migration after the collapse of the Soviet Union (Fassmann and Münz 1995) resulted in a considerable influx of the so-called 'new' Russian migrants characterized by a much greater social and ethnic diversity and by a wide range of motivations (Kopnina 2005: 26-27), including not only political or economic reasons, but also cultural and social ones. These new groups enlarged and reshaped traditional diasporas formed during the Soviet period (Byford 2009; IOM mapping exercise 2007), which affected the ways these communities can be studied and approached by social researchers. Researchers of Russian migrants gradually started to address the challenges of getting into the field and establishing trust (Malyutina 2011; Kopnina 2005) and how their own positionality affects the relationships with participants and collected data (Roberts 2012). However, there is still a need for further clarification and discussion of ethical issues, especially from the perspective of feminist research, which places particular emphasis on researcher reflexivity and the situation of knowledge (Rose 1997: 306).

1.2 The concept of this article arose as I was conducting fieldwork using a purposive sample of Russian people, whom I contacted via online staff pages, internet forums, and social networks. At the beginning, I intended to conduct qualitative semi-structured interviews at participants' homes and to take photographs of possessions within each home as well as the interior design in each household I visited. In practice, however, this did not happen; my presumed role of cultural insider (Ganga and Scott 2006) proved to be problematic. Not only did I have to rely on gate-keepers (i.e. known members of migrants' social groups) and various personal and sometimes random contacts[1] to find participants, but I also had to spend a considerable amount of time socializing with them in order to establish my position as a trustworthy member of the group, a friend in need even, before being invited into the home. Consequently, my will to recruit a diverse group of participants transformed into a necessity. As a result, I had to expand the number of entry points which included the Russian Orthodox Church, academia, Russian language schools, activity groups (hiking and professional communities) and public and cultural organizations, as well as Russian shops and restaurants.

1.3 At the time of fieldwork, my migration experience was limited to only a few months of living in the UK and the process of recruitment helped me to learn not only about strategies of homemaking performed by the Russians I interviewed, but also about my own. Moreover, the task of getting to know people closely connected by friendship and/or work, and spending more time with them, resulted in me becoming a part of these relationships. As a result, the study transformed from a qualitative interviewing of Russians in their homes to the ethnographic research of a connected community, which provided me with some challenging ethical tasks. My post-fieldwork critical engagement with academic literature on reflexive feminist research and ethics helped me to make sense of, and explain, the experience I was going through at that time. What I thought were unexpected and somewhat unavoidable consequences of my research situation were, in fact, part of the larger and ongoing debate on the changeable and negotiated role and power of the researcher (Bradford and Cullen 2011; Ganga and Scott 2006; Mauthner et al 2002; England 1994; Dwyer and Buckle 2009).

1.4 My research experience taught me about relative social positions of everybody who participates or encounters a research process and how easily these can change throughout the stages of research. In this sense, the main argument of this article supports the concept of research ethics that understands it as continual and contextual process (Scharff 2010; Birch and Miller 2002). While simultaneously revealing the complex, contradictory character of the community, it often encourages solutions to difficult ethical problems, which, in turn, help to inform and develop the researcher's own perspective.

The study of Russian migrants' homes in the UK

2.1 The material for this article is taken from a doctoral study of the connection between Russian identity and the material culture of migrants' homes, conducted in the UK between 2006 and 2010. By bringing together individual migrants' experiences as well as the notion of national culture, the study aimed to reveal both key elements of Russian culture and the ways it has been maintained and reconstructed by migrants while living away from home. Following the constructivist paradigm of an understanding of culture and identity (Hall 1990), Russian migrants in the UK were recruited around a particular concept of imagined community of Russian people in the UK rather than around some existing 'community as locality' (Clark 2007). By taking this approach I was also able to get closer to the understanding of modern identity, which is largely based on difference and diversity (Appadurai 1996). Ultimately, culture and identity were understood as a combination and articulation of constantly changing elements and structures, which were more explicit in some contexts; home, with its material culture and associated practices of constant homemaking, proved to be a good example for discerning it.

Research tools

3.1 The main methods used were qualitative interviews at participants' homes, which included elements of participatory research. As I wanted to tour the house and take photographs I invited participants to assist me in those tasks. Being aware of the differences in the subjective perceptions of the domestic atmosphere between participants and me, I wanted participants to take a more active role in 'framing' the material environment of their home. When it was possible, participants used a photographic camera to document items I saw, such as interior details or specific possessions, or they provided me their own images. Not everything was photographed so visual methods were used both as a 'way of seeing' and of documenting: as a researcher, following Pink's approach (2006), I could see and sense the domestic atmosphere (smells, sounds, the overall presentation of the home) and relied on my subjective senses when visiting subjects homes, which was reflected in my interviews and notes.

Research participants and I

4.1 The diverse character of communities of Russian-speakers residing in the UK is interesting case for studying, while posing some methodological challenges. One of these challenges is that researchers have to deal with a community, which is not uniform in its social, demographic, and cultural characteristics and might include, for example, ethnic Russians who arrived as part of different waves of migration, Russians who belong to different generations (British-born Russians) and Russian speakers and ethnic Russians who came from the ex-Soviet Republics or other countries. The group of Russians I interviewed clearly reflects these differences, which were further revealed through the deployed mixed strategies of recruitment. When I realized that contacting people via email and online Russian forums and blogs did not work, I decided to take a more informal approach of getting to know people. As it happened, finding respondents through friends and relatives of initial participants (the 'snowball' method Gobo 2007: 419) was the most, and sometimes the only, effective means of recruitment and I eventually only used this way of obtaining participants and consent.

4.2 The analysis in this article draws on the accounts presented by a group of 34 migrants who came during various migration waves of 20th century. The majority (23) of participants came to the UK during the period between 1990 and 2002 and thus belong to the post-Soviet wave of migration. There were also four participants who arrived between 1939 and 1954 and belonged to the first (after the Second World War) and the second (from the 1950 until the mid 1980s) migration waves; and seven participants who arrived in the UK post- 2002, which means that at the time of interview their stay in the UK was no longer than 5 years' duration. Participants' occupations include university employees, privately employed professionals, service industry workers, housewives and the temporarily unemployed. The interviews took place during 2007 and 2008 and were conducted in interviewees' homes, lasting an average of sixty minutes, with the majority of the interviews taking place in the North-West of England.

4.3 Clearly, the social and cultural characteristics of the researcher are an important part of the dialectic that can help the researcher to, or prevent him or her from getting 'inside' the studied group, and likely to result in change in the latter's perspective. The researcher's initial role was defined as cultural insider due to a similar ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and social background. The fact that I was born in 1981 in the Soviet Union in a small town in the Altai region of Russia and moved around the country several times as a child, due to parent's military background, made me familiar with various cultural and social contexts in my home country, including both Moscow and the Russian periphery. My family background and early life experiences appear close to working-class Russians, however, my university education and subsequently acquired professional jobs, lifestyle, and tastes (Bourdieu 1984) provided me access to educated middle-class and former Soviet intelligentsia. Overall, a rich biography involving moves across Russia, changing jobs and universities, helped me to expand the geography of contacts, but did not help with actual recruitment. As I later discovered, my acquired background and different social 'locations' in terms of age, social, and professional status affected, sometimes unpredictably, the way participants interacted with me and their willingness to disclose certain information, (Scharff 2010: 85), which will be discussed below.

The researcher's role and insider / outsider dilemma

5.1 Russia is still regarded as a challenging environment for conducting fieldwork, due to its cultural and political specificity and informal relationships when arranging interviews. Roberts (2012) notes that political context and the establishment of important informal relationships with others are often the key elements of gaining trust as 'foreign nationals are often met with suspicion by ordinary Russians' who 'exacerbated by a domestic discourse quick to blame 'outsiders' for a range of problems' (Roberts 2012: 3). Such problems can occur when approaching the formal ethical requirement of obtaining signed consent for the interview, especially in a foreign country like the UK where migrants might feel more vulnerable when approached by a representative of a foreign organisation or institution, such as a university, even if that representative is of the same ethnic origin. Even if access is gained, a researcher can still be perceived as the 'cultural outsider' and as a result, get responses that reflect 'performative' elements of culture or demonstrate the way participants would like to present themselves to the 'other' (Byford 2009: 60). The question was whether my research participants carried these Russian/post-Soviet cultural characteristics with them when they migrated? And, more importantly, how my dual role as a researcher and a would-be Russian migrant had to be balanced in order to effectively position myself within a group.

5.2 Overall, my fieldwork experience included several important considerations relating to social positioning and ethics. Firstly, my presumed insider status was not a guarantee of success (Dwyer and Buckle 2009; Mullings 1999) and did not always help me achieve closer relationships with participants, or to produce richer data (Byford 2009; Gabb 2010; Ganga and Scott 2006; Malyutina 2011). The way I presented myself within the community was more important than my Russian background (Sheridan and Storch: 2009). For one category of respondents, and/or in particular situations, I was an 'insider' and, for the other, I was an 'outsider', due to the gender, age and social background of the participants. While it was relatively easy to befriend young Russian women (single and married), who had experience of studying in the UK and could sympathize with my position, recruiting middle-aged settled Russian couples became a problem and I had to learn about different ways of socializing (such as weekend Russian language schools, where they usually met up). Russian language get-togethers at the local pub were characterised from the outset by the informal atmosphere and the variety of Russian speakers of different ages and social backgrounds, who were relatively approachable and happy to talk. Contacting people via their work, however, required a more formal approach and usually took longer to arrange. Respondents from working-class backgrounds were more cautious when communicating because of my University status, although their attitudes changed after we met personally, while elderly people, whom I met in the Orthodox Church, were less open with me as I was not a devout believer, but they liked talking to me about modern Russia. Women were easier to invite to participate in the study, while men (both single and married) were usually interested but unwilling to invite me into their homes.

5.3 Secondly, certain elements of the Russian style of communication and friendship were essential in establishing trust and subsequent recruitment. In Russia, friendship is a very demanding type of relationship that is characterized by close ties (Zborovsky and Shirokova 2003: 77). Researchers of Russian migrant communities also emphasize the great importance of social ties and kinship among migrants (Flynn 2004: 126) when sometimes such 'obvious' things as legal status or work are not disclosed to the researcher (Kopnina 2005: 11). I could see how it worked in my study when people neither gave me consent, nor responded to research-related questions if I did not introduce myself as someone's friend or was 'granted' a friend status by the participants. The background knowledge and the degree to which somebody was known and visible within the community did not guarantee an interview and, if it did lead to an interview, arrangements could take several months to organise. For example, one participant (50 y.o. divorced man) was referred to me by several people as a well-known person among certain groups of Russians, especially those within academic circles. Despite numerous references, he did not reply to my emails for several months and agreed to an interview only when one of his best friends, who happened to be my respondent, asked him to. He later explained that he had not taken it seriously and did not think that he would be able to provide me with any useful information. It can be argued that the type of subjectivity I was dealing with related to some degree of detachment from formal practices associated with interest in 'Russian community' (Kopnina 2005: 13), especially when it came to recognising the distinction between Russian and Soviet culture that, for some interviewees, was problematic. Some admitted they missed the type of intimacy that existed between people 'back then' and referred to their compatriots as 'cold and detached', 'Westernised' and not having 'a Russian soul' (Russian man, 38 y.o.). Others were proud to admit that they learned the British way of friendship (Russian woman, 40 y.o.), which did not place them under pressure in terms of emotional engagement with their Russian friends. As some of my interviewees confirmed, Russians perceive friendship as 'extremely close and dramatic relationships', and the person who is included in the circle of 'friends' is unquestionably treated almost as a relative. Many Russians used to this kind of friendship back in Russia might find it difficult to switch to more distant relationships with locals in the UK and this would, in turn, further strengthen ties with their Russian friends. As a result, while some people preferred more formal means of communication, others were more cautious and would not give me consent until we spent some time getting to know each other. The decision to approach the community as a 'novice' looking for help and contributions enabled me find my way and establish trusted relationships with this type of participant. As a result, the nature of power relations was also mutable and negotiated. As a researcher, I largely set the terms of the research by framing the topic and questions, while my participants set the conditions on which they would participate. Thus, during the recruitment I often 'shifted power to the researched' i.e. relied on the community, allowing them to guide me through the research process (Scharff 2010: 84-5; Letherby 2003: 99-120). Disclosing aspects of my biography as well as sharing my first reactions to 'life in the UK' helped to achieve better relationships and 'persuade' participants to take part, but they made me vulnerable too (Birch and Miller 2002: 92). In the same way as Rogers (2003), I experienced awkward moments of 'revisiting old ghosts' (Rogers and Ludhra 2011: 45) or when responding to the unexpected phone-calls from my former respondents wanting to catch-up (Rogers and Ludhra 2011: 55). On other occasions, it was me, who felt the need to contact the participant once again, either as a follow-up from the interview, or when I felt when our friendship still continued (Letherby 2003: 117). As the experiences of feminist researchers show, the nature of established 'friendship' could be perceived differently and not always be a positive and comfortable experience for the researcher (Evans 2006; Rogers 2003). In the same way as Evans, who learnt criteria of class and belonging from the position of the middle-class and educated women among her fellow working-class Bermondsey residents, I learnt from my Russian countrymen about the strategies of maintaining Russian identity and integrating into British culture, not only from the perspective of university researchers and financial managers, but also from the residents of council estate housing in the North-East of Manchester, where I conducted several interviews[2]. The recruitment approach that I regarded as a necessary adjustment to fieldwork circumstances helped me to approach a group of ordinary Russian migrants, who did not participate in the official community-building activities such as Russian diaspora council meetings or Russian festivals of culture. In addition, I decided to exclude illegal migrants and upper-class Russians from the sample as they required a different approach to recruitment. In this sense, all the activities and time spent with people helped me to learn about my relative social and demographic position and become a part of the collective as well as my own narrative about migrants' life. In this sense, the changed strategy of recruitment enabled me to 'look the other way' (Evans 2006: 20) and take a step further from comfortable strategy of contacting people around me and not exploring further the specificity of the community.

5.4 Once people could see that I was 'one of them' (enjoyed the same things, had similar problems etc.) the whole process of recruitment became easier. Despite a significant amount of time spent within the community, however, my relative proximity and constant balancing never allowed me to become an 'intimate insider' (Taylor 2011: 8). Even though I initially delegated some power to my informants to help me to find other participants, I was clear about my own status as soon as they formally became research participants as I, once again, took more control over the research process and had the power to make ethical decisions of how to interpret and present the data. After giving my participants the lead to take me through the social life of their community and introducing me to their friends, I was then confronted with the difficult task of anonymising them. As Taylor notes, when a researcher becomes close to his/her participants, the level of enclosed detail might be very intimate and even damaging to the public face of the participant. As a result, the researcher encounters the dilemma of deciding what should be included and what should be omitted, which shifts the power to the researcher. At some points I asked myself if I should exclude certain people or certain details about those who gave me consent as it could harm their anonymity as well as that of others (Taylor 2011: 14).

Protecting participants' identity in ethnographic research of home

6.1 Dealing with a small community and using the snowball method of recruitment meant I could observe how Russians communicate and exchange information, and how social capital and bonding is distributed within the group, which was important for my understanding of their cultural identity. However, the very same things could potentially put both me and my interviewees in uncomfortable situations. People shared their impressions of the interviews and my research among themselves; they made decisions about granting access to their homes on the basis of whether or not I interviewed their friends. Furthermore, some people were open and keen to use their real names ('I have nothing to hide' attitude, 41 y.o. woman, Manchester), whereas others were concerned that their privacy could have been threatened by my actions ('We will let you in only if you will not ask anything related to our jobs and personal lives' - couple in their 40s from Liverpool). The key issue was that after giving my participants the lead to take me through the social life of their community and introduce me to other participants, I was then confronted with the difficult task of anonymising them.

6.2 Furthermore, as my research involved the procedure of taking photographs of participants' interiors and home possessions I also had to decide how anonymous the pictures of a sole object should be and whether it really made sense to take a picture of an object if the context is unclear. For instance, was it necessary to take close-ups of similar Russian dolls in different homes? Was it necessary to take a picture of a doll that only a particular owner could have (for instance with faces of political leaders, or with faces of a participant and her friends)? Or, should I agree with those who argue that complete anonymisation of visual images is 'somewhat impossible' (Allen 2012: 447) when it comes to visual methods? The more I was involved into the community, the more I agreed with the position argued by Vainio who claimed that ethical decisions relating to participants' identity, privacy and anonymity 'should be tailored to the specifics of the research process' (2012: 11). I also supported the idea of collaboration between the researcher and participants and the co-production of knowledge (Pink 2009; Karnieli-Miller 2009), which does not, however, eliminate the unequal distribution of power relations between the two parties (Vainio 2012). Thus, my key task at that stage was to find the balance between my power to lead the research methodologically and participants' rights to autonomy and the possibility for them to have a 'voice' (Giordano et al. 2007: 265). This approach fits with the earlier developed idea of 'situation ethics' offered by Goode (1996) who granted that subjects were capable of making decisions about their autonomy and anonymity and, for that reason, it is 'ethical to engage in certain kinds of deception' on case-by-case, or situational, basis (14).

6.3 Given the fact that the invitation into my participants' homes was a result of established informal relationships of trust and friendship, I had to be certain that I was receiving informed consent (Mason 2002: 81). It has been argued that even signed consent does not always equal 'informed' (Mason 2002: 82) and that sometimes gaining access and consent is not the same thing (Miller and Bell 2002: 54): this ambiguity gives researchers the right to use images in almost unrestricted ways (Wiles at al. 2011: 693). I was able to observe that when participants agreed to let me in they were automatically agreeing to other things without thinking too much about it. I experienced a situation like that described by Wiles: participants were enthusiastic about collaborating without being fully aware of the nature of the research in which they were partaking (Wiles at al. 2011: 694), which was due to the Russian cultural understanding of friendship and help (Malyutina 2011; Kharkhordin 1999, 2009) as discussed previously. The interview was treated as a favour, which was something that they could do for me as their friend, to help me with my research. They wanted to do it for me as a person, not as a researcher and thus they were less interested in the consequences of giving consent to use their real names or photographs of their interior details.

6.4 Following on from this, I decided to move away from the initial idea of taking a photograph myself and using it as documentary evidence only. I also realised that I would not be able to collect and/or publish photographs of all objects and interiors I came across even if I had a participants' consent to do so. The solution to move towards a participatory approach and to invite participants to take photographs of their homes and interiors proved to be efficient in my case. The idea was to empower participants and enable them to contribute to the creation of knowledge (Allen 2012; Karnieli-Miller 2009) by seeking their perspectives on framing collected and sometimes co-produced visual narratives, or, their 'ways of seeing' (Berger 1972). As I saw the home myself and could record the interior details in my diary, I could delegate them this role and give them the opportunity to visually express their relationship to the object as they saw it. They could take more control over what they wanted to share with me and the eventual audience of the research results. By giving me their photographs, they knew what they wanted to share and I could compare my vision with theirs.

6.5 These considerations confirmed my chosen prioritisation of participants' oral narratives about the objects in relation to the photographs and perceptions of the objects by me (see Gabb 2010: 468). Despite being effective in some cases, the participatory method was not completely free from the issues of involvement, emotion, and power (Letherby 2003: 120). It was clear that although participation meant to be empowering tool, with some participants the distribution of authority was less fixed (Scharff 2010: 85). At the beginning of the interview I invited all participants to collaborate and allowed them to decide which of us would take the photographs. Sometimes, it was me who took the photograph, on other occasions we did it together or they assisted me, either standing alongside me or guiding me through the room, informing me which photographs should be taken and which ones should not. Finally, there were occasions when they asked me not to take photographs at all or provided their own. My study once again demonstrated the changeable nature of boundaries of qualitative research, which are 'constantly remapped and renegotiated as the process unfolds' (Birch and Miller 2002: 99). While it was often up to participants to enable me to collect the stories, at the end of the fieldwork it was me who was responsible for the final selection of verbal and visual data during the analysis and writing up stages of the process.

To keep or to leave?: Participants' identities and the analysis of visual data

7.1 The significance of the photographs produced clearly changed during and after the interviews. The photographs that the participants or I took, or did not take, referred to the particular context of that interview - their sense, emotions and other circumstances that contributed to the creation of the overall interview narrative. These were not just the images of souvenirs and posters, but rather personal photographs that could offer an insight into their identities in a similar way as the objects presented in these photographs. In some sense the very participatory nature of visual methods (Wiles at al. 2011: 692) helped me to locate the effective strategy of dealing with these issues and the decision not to take a photograph was equally as important and could say a lot about the identity of the owner. This was implied by the research question, which was not about the objects that signified Russianness but about the relationships to those objects and the processes that made those objects significant to my participants' cultural identity. Even if the object was there, it did not mean that it was significant to the participant or to his/her identity, which was often the case with souvenirs or other national gifts. However as I discovered later, the power of even simple shots of touristy items was stronger than I expected. For example, every time I showed homes decorated with matrioshka dolls there was an active response from the audience, who were very critical in their perception of the image of Russian culture as folksy and traditional.

7.2 Furthermore, by inviting participants to collaborate, I could see that the very process of taking a picture could become a part of the complicated relationship between me, as a researcher, and my participants. Not all participants gave me consent to take pictures and in some cases the strategy of giving participants control and inviting them to actively participate in the process of taking photographs was effective, whereas in others it appeared to be a disempowering tool (Allen 2012: 9). For instance, it could be regarded as an intrusive process (pictures of icons in the bedroom, the photographs of gifts from those who have passed away etc.),[3] as if I were taking those objects (not the photographs) away with me. At certain points I had to ask myself if I should exclude people or details about those who gave me consent as it could harm their anonymity as well as that of others (Taylor 2011: 14). By the end of my fieldwork I had a collection of photographs taken by participants on their cameras and which clearly revealed their identity. I had participants' consent to use them, but I was also aware that the way I would use those photographs would identify my reflections and interpretations of my research results (Vainio 2012: 11).

7.3 Yet again the decision-making process represented the interplay between power and autonomy or 'between concealing identities and revealing them' (Vainio 2012: 11). By amending the details that make their identities traceable, I would speak over their 'voices'. Revealing participants' identities in my publicly disseminated papers could, however, lead to situations that neither my participants nor I could anticipate (for example it may attract an unfavourable reaction from the audience, and/or reveal participants' contacts and networks, which were supposed to remain private). I decided to deploy the model of 'ethics of responsibility' (Birch and Miller 2002: 93), which aims to critically balance the perspectives and points of view of all research participants, including the researcher's (Birch and Miller 2002: 93). Another important decision was to accept 'silencing' (Ryan-Flood and Gill: 2010) as the essential and inevitable part of the research process. One of its realisations was the decision to avoid creating case studies and/or to amend the interview narratives in my research papers and to use most of the photographs at conferences and not in the actual publications, an approach shared by another researcher working with visual images (Pink 2009).

7.4 But there were less conscious aspects of the 'unspoken in the research process' (Ryan-Flood and Gill 2010: 8) related to participants relationships to me and with each other which came up at different stages of recruitment. For instance, I contacted a divorced couple, no longer in contact with each other, and considered them as singles because I had received their details from separate sources. Sometimes people would not grant me an interview, because they knew that somebody they did not get on well with had been a previous participant so they did not want to get involved in the project. As research progressed there were more 'unspoken' details of participants' lives and homes: smells and sounds; my moments of fear; unwanted talks; when I felt uncomfortable and when they were reluctant; facts about them they wanted to tell me off-record; things we wished we had not said. No matter how rich and personal, the collected narratives were part of a particular encounter and for that reason 'will only be known in fragments' (Moor 2010: 40).


8.1 The key objective of this article is to demonstrate the complicated nature of ethical decisions faced by the female researcher of Russian migrant communities. My study supports the argument for making decisions as the research progresses, which, in the case of the migrant group, is also affected by cultural norms and the ways of communicating within the particular group. The role of the participants is paramount in qualitative research, but giving them all control and relying on them completely can affect other participants' safety and their public image as well as that of other members of the community. While researching Russian migrants' homes in the UK, I identified and hopefully overcame several problems relating to my positionality within the group which helped me to recruit a diverse group of participants and to eventually allow a dialogue between different types of knowledge relating to reflexivity, positionality, Russian identity and culture. I suggest that a more democratic and situational approach of conducting research, which relies on participants' decisions about their anonymity and privacy, could be beneficial when it comes to studying issues of cultural identity, especially in the case of Russian/Post-Soviet communities. It enabled me to proceed further in terms of learning about my own culture and my own reactions that I did not, and could not, expect if I took a different way of approaching the subjects. By enabling participants to play a more active role in the study and the process of knowledge creation, and showing that I was also learning with and about them, I encouraged their interest in my research and their own culture.

8.2 This article agrees with scholars who suggest that ethics categories (such as privacy, harm, confidentiality, friendship) do not have a stable meaning and cannot be taken for granted (Miller and Bell 2002; Baez 2002; Goode 1996). The need to make ethical decisions on the spot reflects the nature of qualitative ethnography, which always aims to reveal complexities and contradictions within the studied community. Ambiguous moments, or facing difficult ethical choices, only served to confirm the fact that relationships within the community can be diverse and problematic and a researcher can play an active part in reshaping them and find him/herself at the centre of these relationships. The more I was involved into the community, the more I agreed on the position expressed by Gabb (2010), who argued that by retaining 'the 'messiness' of everyday experience', researchers can 'retain some of the uncertainties that shape and are shaped by everyday family relationships' (Gabb 2010: 462). In other words, by keeping some of the pitfalls of the research as it is, we can approach our subjects in a more comprehensive and complex way. In this sense, Rose's classic argument that reflexivity is never neutral (1997: 306) finds yet another application in the qualitative research of home.


I would like to thank Dr Paul Simpson, Dr Athanasia Chalari and Professor Tracy Shildrick for their guidance and useful comments and Dr Leanne Dawson for the patient and thorough readings of many drafts of this article. I am also grateful to the anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments. Final thanks go to all participants of my study.


1Several times I approached people when I heard them speaking Russian at various public places e.g. when queuing for a Schengen visa at the French Consulate; on the bus; sitting at the bar in a Russian restaurant; or similar social occasions.

2The group of Russians interviewed in the North-East of Manchester council estate included 50 years old unemployed woman married to an Englishman, 40 y.o. waitress at Russia restaurant, 40 y.o. accountant and office working professionals in their 30s.

3For example, in the home of one elderly participant I discovered a special religious room with a personal shrine, specifically designed for her use. She kept all of her icons, other religious symbols, various significant objects, and photographs of her sons in the room, which was clearly very special to her and the reason she granted permission to photograph.


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