My Lesson in Research Rehearsal

After eight amazing weeks in Europe, I’m back in the U.S. and just starting to process my time abroad. Interning at the European Roma Rights Centre taught me so much about Roma people and the systematic racism many of them face. I also learned about efforts to combat this racism through litigation and advocacy. I greatly value the knowledge I gained through this experience — and now, as I prepare for another year of research at Princeton, I’m also thinking about the process behind the knowledge. Some of the most useful and thought-provoking lessons from my time abroad concerned how to effectively prepare for field research.

Here I am in Belgrade, Serbia with the other conference participants, all of whom work with organizations that research statelessness in Central and Eastern Europe.

During my second-to-last week in Budapest, I went with four colleagues to a conference in Belgrade, Serbia. The three-day conference functioned as a training workshop to prepare seven organizations to conduct field research on stateless Roma (Roma individuals who aren’t legally affiliated with any nation.) These organizations were based in countries all throughout Eastern Europe and the West Balkans, where statelessness is a particularly significant issue among Roma populations. The ERRC led the workshop — and I got to play a role in the research trainings.

Now when I say “play a role,” I mean it in the most literal way possible. The ERRC led exercises to help equip the conference participants with useful tools for field research. One of these exercises involved mock interviews in which interns pretended to be various stakeholders in the field. I played the role of a birth registrar (a government employee who issues birth certificates) with little knowledge of Roma or statelessness. Teams of two people from each organization then “interviewed” the interns as if they were conducting research in the field. The other interns and I responded as we thought our characters would respond. After the mock interviews, the whole group debriefed together and reflected on the exercise.

I was able to compare my interview experience across different scenarios and offer feedback about which interview questions I responded well to. I also highlighted the types of questions or tones that made me feel uncomfortable or frustrated. For instance, a few interviewers used accusatory language, which caused me to close up and be unforthcoming. Similarly, we discussed which questions elicited the most fruitful answers. The ERRC used this experience to develop a list of best practices for future interviews.

In our free time, the other interns and I had the opportunity to explore Belgrade. Here I am sitting on the edge of the Kalemegdan Fortress, which was built in 535 AD!

As a mock interviewee, I found the exercise to be both entertaining and informative. In order to play my role successfully, I had to put myself in someone else’s shoes and try to infer how they might react to a question. This is a helpful training technique since considering interviewees’ points of view is essential for conducting productive and ethical field research.

When it comes to field research, practice may not make perfect. But this experience taught me that conducting mock interviews can be fun, low-risk preparation for future interviews — when the stakes are higher and breaking character isn’t an option.

— Emma Kaeser, Social Sciences Correspondent