“I can’t talk right now! I’m cutting fish!”

I have now been in Delhi for a month and my interview project is fully underway. A significant portion of my time has been spent with my Research Assistant making “cold-calls” to people to ask them to participate in the study. As I’m sure you can imagine, cold-calls are not the most fun part of the project. However, participant recruitment is an essential, though less glamorous, part of the research process and dramatically shapes the pool of people included in your study and, as a result, your findings.

My project builds on findings from the CASI Delhi NCR survey which took place almost two years ago. The survey used the electoral rolls (lists of all registered voters and their addresses) as a random sample. The survey data yielded interesting findings about how marriage is changing but left me with as many questions as it gave answers. I decided that in-depth interviews with some of the families which participated in the survey would enrich the quantitative results and allow me to dig deeper into how marriage decisions are negotiated in the family.

The survey respondents gave CASI their phone number at the time of the survey and agreed to be contacted for follow-up study. I identified young unmarried respondents and we began calling.

As you can expect, people are quite skeptical of and sometimes annoyed about random phone calls. Even after explaining the research project to them, some people still didn’t understand what we want from them as many people are unfamiliar with qualitative interview research. Then there is catching people at a bad time. “I’m in the office right now.” “I’m driving.” “I’m in the village.” And our favorite- “I can’t talk right now! I’m cutting fish!”

We found that our approach of calling young unmarried respondents did not yield great results. Often the phone numbers listed were of the parents and they were usually hesitant to hand the phone to their son or daughter. We found people to be especially guarded with their daughters. When we did speak to young women, they often told us that they would need to ask their father’s permission before agreeing to participate. Young women were around 3 TIMES more likely to refuse participation than young men. Given concerns about safety in the city, it is not surprising that so few women agreed to meet us.

So, we tried another strategy. Since parents, and especially fathers, were the gatekeepers then maybe we should contact those people directly. I drew up another list of potential respondents, this time of middle-aged men and women with unmarried adult children living at home. Once we started calling parents, we started scheduling more interviews. Fewer people hung up on us. Also, older respondents tended to be more honest from the first phone call, telling us flatly that they didn’t want to or have time to participate. Younger respondents tended to not give a straight answer, leading us to waste time on follow-up calls which led nowhere.

A lot of people asked me why I was going through so much trouble. They suggested young unmarried people that they knew for me to interview. Couldn’t I just recruit at one of the local universities? Each sampling strategy has pros and cons. Your research questions should guide how you select people to include in your study. One possible drawback to using your social network to recruit interview respondents is that the people we know are more likely to be similar to us and each other. Recruiting respondents from one place, such as a workplace or a university would also only reflect certain types of young Delhiites. But because my interview project is supposed to complement the quantitative findings, I elected to go with a random sampling strategy so that I could recruit a broader sample of people. Drawing from the survey respondents has another advantage- I have a lot more data about each household.

I feel that the hard work of cold-calling has paid off. So far, my Research Assistant and I have completed almost a dozen interviews which highlight the diversity of the city. Our interviews have taken place in all different regions of Delhi, from centrally-located areas to new settlements on the fringe of the city. We have done interviews in fancy malls and homes in congested low-income neighborhoods. This sampling strategy allows us to reach people that may be difficult to find but, nonetheless, remain a significant chunk of Delhi’s millennials like the self-employed, the unemployed, and people preparing for job placement exams.

The best part of the project is the interesting people we meet who have kindly donated their time to talk to us. “Cold-calling” may be frustrating and tedious work but it has helped my Research Assistant and I find people who we otherwise would have never met. Their stories have enriched our understanding of family and marriage in the city.

One thought on ““I can’t talk right now! I’m cutting fish!”

  1. I agree about the advantages involved in your sampling strategy and want to congratulate you on your perseverance. Also glad that it has paid off so well. Persistence and having high goals reaps lasting rewards.

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About Megan Reed

Megan is a PhD student in Sociology and Demography at the University of Pennsylvania. She researches gender, family, and social inequality in India. Read more about her research here: https://sites.google.com/view/meganreed.