Lessons Learned: Know the Field, Be Flexible

August 17, 2015
Distributing free Narcan Kits and condoms at Oak City Outreach Center, Raleigh

By Prasana Khatiwoda, MSc-GH candidate

“Do you know what you are getting yourself into?” she said over the phone, “I mean, why would they talk to you about their drug habits? For all they know, you could be a narc.”

(I had never been called a narc before. Had I not been at my wits' end at that moment, I would’ve probably spent hours daydreaming about being a narcotics officer and practicing my “Freeze!!! FBI!” line in front of the mirror.)

My research is on finding facilitators and barriers to Naloxone/Narcan Kit usage among opioid users in North Carolina. Dispensing Narcan Kits is a new harm reduction method to prevent deaths related to opioid overdose. My plan was to get in-depth interviews with people who have used the kit, and I wanted to talk with an opioid user to tweak my interview questions. Instead, I was hearing the unwanted message that interviews wouldn’t work at all! 

“And even if they talk, where are you going to interview them? Alone? In a hotel room? Do you know the risk involved with that?”

I could see she cared about my safety, but I was well aware of the difficulties that came with my research topic. And I knew it would be a whole different struggle trying to get this research done in North Carolina, USA, where harm reduction is still taken as “supporting addiction” by the majority of people.

I was getting nowhere with it and feeling hopeless. It was then that I realized how tough fieldwork can be. The research methodology, data collection and survey questions that I had so eagerly planned out before looked perfect in writing, but to carry it out there in the real world seemed impossible. I was laughed at for even suggesting to compensate my research participants with gift cards or Starbucks coffee. (“No one cares about your gift cards, girl! Do you even know who you are dealing with?”)

I would’ve probably given up had I not truly believed in my project. By this time, it had become more than a thesis paper to me. It was a way of getting one step closer to finding an answer to a question that has been in my mind for a long time now: Why do people who are identified as drug users become criminals and not patients?

The trick, I found, is to be persistent and flexible, and to keep talking to potential collaborators.

When one window closed, I ran to the next. Within a few days, I talked to someone else who is knowledgeable about opioid users. He suggested I survey people waiting in line at methadone clinics. As a result, I changed my method and came up with survey questions and a new plan—a feasible one—to collect data. I listened to the opinions of local collaborators and found a way to satisfy their interests as well as the IRB. 

Looking back, I realize I had failed to know the field beforehand. I wasn't working with a team and no one had ever conducted similar research here with this population before, and that was one mistake on my part. I was so focused on doing things according to the requirements that I completely forgot that research is more than just academic papers, that it involves the outside world and that sometimes they don’t go together and it is up to you to find solutions.

Now, towards the end of my summer fieldwork (still not done yet, because I started late), I think the most important thing I have learned from my experience is that a researcher going out into the field should not only be equipped with the right question, but also with an ability to ask the same question in several different ways. It may just be to be flexible without compromising the main study aim.