Members of Parliament (MPS) are often viewed negatively in opinion polls and the constituency work they carry out is not often talked about. Over the course of my doctoral research I sought to find out what MPs actually do by closely observing intimate details that made up contemporary interactions and communication between MPs and their constituents. To collect the data required, I carried out an ethnography of MPs in their constituencies over 15 months. This experience proved to be rather challenging, but also the most rewarding component of my PhD. For the purpose of this post, I will focus on briefly discussing the process of selecting this method and challenges I encountered when embarking on my fieldwork.
Guided by the analytically rich ethnographic work of Fenno (1978) and Nielsen (2012), I selected ethnography as one of my methodologies (the other two being semi-structured interviews and discourse analysis). It allowed me intimate access to complex episodic interactions between MPs and their constituents. I primarily focused on the MP-constituent interaction during the advice surgery, which I sat in on as an observer, as long as the constituent was comfortable with me doing so. For the uninitiated, an advice surgery is a one-to-one meeting MPs hold with constituents, where they are able to seek their MPs help or ask for their advice. These are regularly held, and often hosted in a public area in the constituency such as a public library. I also followed MPs as they presented speeches in town halls, attended local council meetings and went on walkabouts in the constituency. Part of my ethnographic work also involved collecting data from MP communications that were produced and disseminated while in the constituency, both in person and what was posted online.
Ethnography involves the full-time involvement of the participant-observer (in this case, myself) over a period of considerable length and demands the interaction with the study of chosen human subjects in their natural environment (Van Maanen, 1988: 1–2). The advantage (and on occasion, drawback) of a method like ethnography is not knowing what you are looking for until you are knee deep in it.
I carried out a pilot study before committing to ethnography as one of my methods. A pilot study, also known as a feasibility study, is a mini version of a full-scale investigation (Teijlingen and Hundley, 2001). Aligned with a reflexive approach to qualitative research, it provides valuable insights and allows adjustments to be made to the research design. I reached out to a Conservative MP who represented a constituency in southeast England. With his consent I shadowed him and his caseworker as they carried out advice surgeries on a Friday afternoon in November 2014. The pilot study confirmed that there were unique details about the face-to-face interaction worth pursuing, including the management of upset or angry constituents. I also uncovered details I missed out or had not thought of during the planning of my fieldwork, such as attempts to influence constituent behaviour with posts on his social media accounts. I fully recommend a pilot study to anyone uncertain about utilising a method as demanding as an ethnography.
Having decided to undertake the ethnography, I needed a way in. Gaining access to the group you intend to observe can be tricky, especially a group of busy parliamentarians. I started the project by approaching MPs from three major British political parties for the opportunity to shadow them in their constituency. I sent letters introducing myself, briefly explaining my project aims and invited them to participate.
To this end, here are three things I have learned:
1. Strength of networks
The success of relying on your existing networks of friends and contacts might vary but it never hurts to ask. Often a former classmate might know someone who knows someone who knows someone else… You get the idea. Approximately half of the MPs who agreed to participate in my research (by way of the ethnography and/or granting me an interview) were introduced to me by contacts that had previously worked with them in some capacity or another.
2. Perseverance is key
Short of sounding like a motivational coach, try, try, and try again. To achieve the breadth and depth my research required to be considered rigorously sound, I sent emails to 100 MPs. Some replied and many did not. Do follow up on unanswered emails, or try a polite phone call to check if they received your email. More so than anyone else, MPs are busy individuals and emails do get lost or forgotten. Those who did reply and eventually agreed to let me shadow them often proved to be helpful in more than one way (see below).
3. Maintain good relations with participants
Making an effort to establishing and maintaining relationships with participants demonstrates respect for their time. After all, they have allowed you to trail behind them, observing their every move. This not only includes the MP, but also their staff, as they are the ones who I often interacted with to arrange and confirm each shadowing. I also found that establishing friendly relations with my participants allowed me to snowball my sample. This was often achieved by conversing between meetings. One MP in particular, not only recommended me MPs to approach, but made a call to a fellow Labour MP to arrange a meeting for me that very day.
Any ethical issues or complications that might arise had to be thoroughly considered prior to carrying out the actual fieldwork had. With the sensitivity of surgery interactions and personal issues discussed, I placed importance on assuring participants (MPs, their staff, and constituents) that their identities and anything discussed would remain confidential.
With approval from the departmental research committee, I developed clear and concise consent forms to ensure my participants were aware of what my project was about, the voluntary nature of their participation and allowing me the use of anonymised quotes. These were accompanied by a letter briefly describing my research objectives and sent to all MPs who agreed to be shadowed. This not only created a sense of rapport and trust between myself as the researcher and the MPs, but also with the MP’s caseworkers. In addition, I signed confidentiality statements provided by the representative’s offices, ensuring that nothing incriminating and sensitive would result in the identification of the constituent or the MP (should they choose to be anonymous).
I was also careful to ensure constituents were informed about my research and presence at the start of every interaction. In the event any of them were uncomfortable, I would offer to leave the room. Over the course of fieldwork, all except one of the constituents were comfortable with my presence. When it came to finally writing up my findings, apart from MPs comfortable to be named, all other names (included staffers and constituents) were altered. To further protect the anonymity of the people involved, specific details of locations are intentionally obscured.
As the observer becomes accustomed to the community or group of people they are studying, they often run the risk of lines between observer and participant blurring. A concern with ethnographic work, this may result in the researcher’s objectivity being compromised. To ensure boundaries were preserved, I sat close to MPs and their caseworkers during meetings, but did not participate apart from introducing myself at the start of every meeting.
Fears of participants behaving unnaturally with me were allayed the more time I spent with them. I observed them repeatedly carrying out their constituency duties in similar fashions, reducing the possibility of an act. They also became accustomed to my presence, and often focused on the many responsibilities they to attend to. In addition, I carried a small notebook around with me, recording my field notes in as much detail as possible between meetings and individual interactions, rather than during the meetings. This was deliberately done so that constituents, MPs and caseworkers would feel comfortable and natural during meetings.
Despite the difficulties in getting started and amount of effort required, the ethnographic approach was fulfilling. It allowed details about an MP’s constituency life to emerge organically. I also had the opportunity to explore various picturesque parts of England while doing so (see image above)! Along the way, I learned about the challenges faced as they integrated digital tools across their parliamentary and constituency work; the importance of making time for their family; and perhaps most importantly, that they genuinely cared about what they did.
Dr Nikki Soo earned her PhD from the New Political Communication Unit at Royal Holloway’s Department of Politics and International Relations. Find out more about her work here or follow her on Twitter @sniksw.