When interviewers try to contact potential participants whom they do not know, they often face gatekeepers who control access to those people. Gatekeepers can range from the absolutely legitimate (to be respected) to the self-declared (to be avoided). If a researcher’s study involves participants below the age of 18, for example, access to them must involve absolutely legitimate gatekeepers: the participants’ parents or guardians. Although it may be appropriate to seek access to students through the schools, very soon in the process the parents or guardians of the children must affirm that access. Within the schools themselves, teachers, principals, and superintendents serve as legitimate gatekeepers whom researchers must heed.
Some participants are accessible only through the institutions in which they reside or work. For example, if a researcher wanted to interview prisoners about prison education programs, it is not likely that there would be any route of access other than through the warden. (See Code of Federal Regulations, 2001, 45\46.305,306, for regulations regarding research with prisoners.) A researcher studying the experience of people at a particular site, whether it be factory, school, church, human service organization, or business, must gain access through the person who has responsibility for the operation of the site. (See Lincoln & Guba, 1985, p. 252; Richardson et al., 1965, p. 97.)
On the other hand, one researching an experience or a process that takes place in a number of sites, but not studying the workings of any particular site, may not need to seek access through an authority. Such a researcher may want to study the work of high school teachers who teach in many schools scattered through a region or even across the country. In such a case, the researcher might go directly to them without asking for permission from their principals.
Likewise, a researcher studying the experience of students in high school, but not in a particular high school, might not have to seek access through a principal but only through parents. However, in both cases, if a researcher does not seek permission from a principal, the researcher would not be able to interview in the school building itself. In general, the more adult and autonomous the potential participants (for example, prisoners have little autonomy), the more likely that access can be more direct, if a particular site is not the subject of the inquiry.
In our study of community college faculty (Seidman, 1985), my colleagues and I interviewed 76 participants in approximately 25 different community colleges in Massachusetts, New York State, and California. Because we were not studying a particular community college, we did not seek access to individual faculty through the administrators of the colleges. On the other hand, we were never secretive about our work; it would have been difficult to be so, carrying, as we were, a tape recorder large enough to allow us to make audiotapes of a sound quality suitable for the film that we made in the first phase of our research (Sullivan & Seidman, 1982). But even if we had been using a small, pocket-sized tape recorder, we would not have hidden our research from others. When asked in the halls what we were doing at the college, we answered explicitly about our project.
On only one occasion was a faculty member uncomfortable with our approaching him directly and not through his administration. We told him that he should inform the administration of our project and our wish to interview him; we made it clear that we were not doing research about the site. We said that if an administrator wanted to meet with us, we would be happy to do so in order to explain our project, but we were not eager to seek permission from administrators to interview individual faculty. The participant did inform his administration, but no one wanted to meet us.
Sometimes the cooperation of formal gatekeepers may be necessary but fraught with complications. For example, gatekeepers may allow researchers access to employees in their organization and encourage them to participate. Such encouragement could raise the ethical question of how free employees are not to volunteer for the research if their supervisor is encouraging participation (Birch & Miller, 2002, pp. 99-100).
Source: Seidman Irving (2006), Interviewing As Qualitative Research: A Guide for Researchers in Education And the Social Sciences, Teachers College Press; 3rd edition.