The field is on your doorstep: the challenges of policy research in Leiden
Conducting fieldwork against a backdrop of public policy interests and professional reputations in your own place of residence adds a whole new level to the experience. As a researcher in this context, you are essentially caught in a game of piggy in the middle between the subjects of policy, the objects of policy, and other invested actors. In this article Tommie Lambregts shares his research experience during the master programme Policy in Practice.
Fieldwork in Slaaghwijk
In the early months of 2019, I conducted fieldwork in the Slaaghwijk neighbourhood in Leiden as part of a research internship commissioned by the municipality. The municipality was particularly concerned about the neighbourhood’s most vulnerable group (statistically speaking): adolescent males from migrant backgrounds. This group, exhibiting high rates of school dropout, unemployment and illegal activity relative to their peers in the rest of the city, proved to be the group that the municipality found most difficult to reach out to.
I came into contact with the youth workers at Jongerenwerk Leiden, an organisation that attempts to support and coach vulnerable youths by organising various activities. One of their mainstay activities was indoor football where I was allowed to join in. But the younger adolescents generally had difficulty understanding my role – who did I work for? What did I want from them? What could I do for them?
Building trust had been a point of emphasis for me. Due to the difficult relationship between the police and my research population, I felt it was important not to be associated with the municipality or the police if I was to build any kind of relationship. By not associating myself I successfully created a situation where police officers, social workers and young adolescents all felt comfortable having conversations with me and discussing issues with each other in my presence. While that was a great outcome, it also came with a strong sense of responsibility on my part to protect my respondents, and not share information that would make them regret working with me.
Vested interest in understanding more about Slaaghwijk
As a student intern whose graduation depended to some degree on the success of their internship, the potential was there for me to be very wary of being overly critical of the municipality. There was also the added risk of ruining future cooperation between the municipality and the institute. As an added bonus, this was all taking place in the city I lived and studied in, meaning there was no way of escaping this web of responsibility. Thankfully, my supervisor made a point of emphasising and ensuring my independence as a researcher, by creating the circumstances for me to operate autonomously. To their credit, the municipality and the police in Leiden-Noord were open to criticism. In the end, everyone had a vested interest in understanding more about everyday life in the Slaaghwijk.