November 9, 2017
Adeiza | The Joys and Challenges of Doing Fieldwork in a Presidential Campaign
Matthew Adeiza, PhD Candidate in Communication, spent the 2016 election cycle immersed in two rival presidential campaigns, in Ghana. Why Ghana? Because it is a promising democracy in Africa which improves with each election cycle, Adeiza explained to a group of graduate students and faculty gathered at the first QUAL Speaker Series talk of the 2017-18 school year.
Adeiza was interested in two main research questions:
- How do Ghanaian political elites understand and articulate their relationship with voters?
- How do presidential campaigns use digital media to organize and coordinate volunteers and staffers?
He used a mixed methods approach, including 45 interviews and several observations of regional level meetings, campaign rallies and other events; combined with a 700,000-node network map of political actors, using Twitter data.
At the QUAL talk he discussed his lessons learned from conducting the qualitative portion of his research in the field, during a contested election.
Not surprisingly, Adeiza faced a lot of mistrust from both political parties he studied, the incumbent NDC (National Democratic Congress) and the opposition NPP (New Patriotic Party). Both parties had well-established, long-term bases, so when he showed up for an interview with an NPP insider, the source questioned Adeiza, “Are you a spy?” Because Adeiza introduced himself as a graduate student from the University of Washington, this source implied he may be a spy for the CIA or possibly the opposition NDC party. However, after establishing a trust relationship, Adeiza said, this skeptic turned out be one of his best-connected sources.
Concerned about the security of the data he was gathering, Adeiza said he used his IRB as an excuse not to discuss sensitive information by phone. He recorded his in-person interviews (to transcribe later) but told his sources that he will upload the files to the university server (at UW) and delete all information from his recorder and computer after each interview. This signaled to his interviewees that if they planned on having his laptop or recorder stolen, there would not be anything of value on those devices, Adeiza explained. Backing up the data on a UW server as soon as possible also helped ensure its safekeeping from any technical glitches while in the field.
The parties’ events and meetings were constantly shifting, which resulted in a challenge to get across town for various events. Taxis were expensive for Adeiza’s field work budget.
“I’m happy I did not get discouraged by that,” he said. He still went to party meetings and he said some of his most insightful observation notes came from instances where people seemed to forget he was present. He had previously introduced himself as a researcher and what he was studying, but after a while, at some party meetings, campaign members seemed to forget Adeiza was in the room and opened up to discuss topics such as some violence in the campaign cycle that both parties publicly denied any role in.
Interviews were also challenging to set up. Adeiza said he often heard, “I can’t talk to you because I have a meeting.” His solution to this excuse was to befriend the receptionists at sources’ offices. He would ask them to call him when the source was in the office and not busy with meetings. He would then show up and when the interviewee asked how Adeiza knew they would be in and available, he would shrug and say, “I just dropped by.” He secured several otherwise evasive interviews using this tactic. After the election was over, he also got a lot more candid interviews from both sides.
The big picture
Adeiza was able to correctly predict that the NPP was going to win the election a few weeks before the ballots were cast. People were dissatisfied with the NDC which had been in office a long time without much to show in terms of results. He got the sense from both, his official sources, and from the sentiment of voters he met informally, such as his taxi drivers.
Learning to enjoy political gossip
Something that surprised Adeiza was how useful gossip was to setting context to his field work. Not one to usually gravitate towards it, Adeiza became an expert in gossip by default in Ghana. There were many graduate students from around the world, studying different topics, in Ghana that late 2016. They would gather frequently to socialize and share insights and those insights gave him the confidence to ask the tough questions of politicians, Adeiza said.