There are many different approaches to doing social research, from the long term, in depth, ethnographic field research that relies on time in the field, to the faster questionnaires that rely more on repeated opinions and comparative analysis. Whilst an ethnographic approach can be illustrative and provide context, at times you just need to knock on a few doors to reach the people you want to study.
Recently I and some colleagues at the RSA have been doing just that; we have been knocking on doors in a housing estate in West London and asking people to complete a 10-15 minute survey. The survey focuses on understanding community connections in the area. It has been designed to explore both how well people are connected in the estate and how well they are coping. After you have knocked on a couple of hundred doors you start to see a picture emerge amongst the respondents, as to why they are responding the way they are.
Much of the research is conducted during the day and it comes as little surprise that perhaps six out of ten of the doors knocked on and bells rung result in nothing more than the auditory echo through an empty house. Some people will answer the doors and excuse themselves with reasons that may be genuine or just dismissive, but their reasons are their own – in these cases refusal does not offend. Two or three of the ten doors knocked will elicit a response that will lead to a completed survey: Those respondents who listen to your introduction and accept that maybe they do ‘have ten minutes’ to spare. For some there is a duty, an understanding that you are doing your job and need people to respond and they want to help you do that. For others there is an interest in the subject, a faint curiosity in the process or a desire to be civically minded. Some, of course, just want to be listened to; to speak and to be heard. Regardless, out of our initial ten there remains one other kind of response: Neither happy, nor talkative, absent nor busy. Some remain quiet - behind closed doors.
I did not notice straight away but after a few days of knocking and ringing my way through the estate, I started to realise that ‘no answer’ did not necessarily mean that no one was home. The signs were sometimes as obvious as a twitching net curtain, or as concerning as ground floor windows being left wide open. At times shadows would cross the door and you knew that only a metre away the resident stood, silent and waiting for you to leave. It is with some irony that the pile of blank surveys in my bag are designed to quantify a person’s community connections and wellbeing and the people we would most like to hear from are keeping their connections limited and their wellbeing private. It was an experience shared by other researchers on the estate. On a few occasions reassurances as to our exact identity, and reasons for the visit, have had to be conducted through a letter box before the door was cautiously opened, or a rejection was received. In contrast, a door can be thrown open to have an aggressive resident exclaim “You have 20 seconds to explain why you’re here and it better be good!”
“You have 20 seconds to explain why you’re here and it better be good!”
only to have the meeting finish after in-depth discussions on current international affairs (“What’s your take on Gaza?”) and the uptake of Marxist icons in fashion.
The reasons for such behaviour are as different as the residents themselves. Sometimes a head popping out of a first floor window will mark out a lone teenager who would rather avoid a difficult conversation and at other times language or just ill health may stall the resident from coming to the door. The truth of these situations remain silenced by the barrier of wood and glass, but sometimes even these barriers get opened surprising both researcher and door opener.
On one occasion I was working my way through a bank of flat numbers and corresponding buzzers. I was just about to move onto the next button when the speaker cracked and a voice snapped “What do you want?!” The response caught me off guard and experience fled as I stumbled through my introduction as it became punctuated with “What?”s and “Who?”s from small speaker. Then, with a noise that sounded liked resounding acceptance, the door buzzed and I was granted entry into the flat. At times residents buzzed entry into the flats without actually talking into the intercom, or wanting to come to the door, let alone answer questions about their health, so I was surprised to find an elderly woman standing with her door slightly ajar waiting for me to arrive.
“There’s no point me talking to you. I have nothing nice to say. I don’t want to talk, there is no point”. As she snapped at me from the safety of her hallway, everything about the encounter said to me that it would be short lived. I hesitated knowing that at any moment she could slam the door and that would be the end of it. Gently I suggested that if that was how she felt, and then perhaps she was exactly the person I should speak to, but that I did not want to intrude and would leave if she preferred. I do not know if it was my distance or my reassurance that I would leave, but rather than seeing me off she decided to talk.
Born in Southeast Asia in the 1930s she has been living alone in the flat for over 20 years since she retired from her job as a surgery nurse. Now her only contact is a weekly visit from her partner who lives in on the south coast and who she was expecting, which is the only reason I was allowed in. Over the next few minutes it becomes clear that she suffers from a number of ailments that leave her virtually housebound, leaving her focusing on her plants and the television to “…keep my mind working if not my body”. More than anything else this woman appears scared and alone: she fears the door knocking as sometimes people kick at it and there is shouting outside. She stays locked up and ‘keeps her eyes and mouth shut’. Despite her attempts at attending resident association meetings, and calls to the housing association, she appears to have ‘given up’ becoming part of the community (“what community?!”). After perhaps 45 minutes talking and at times crying, she begins to smile and some light comes into her eyes – talking, even to a stranger, perhaps has helped. “Sorry about being rude earlier” she says as I pack away the survey and heft my bag, “I don’t usually open the door. Not anymore”.
As researchers we sometimes get focused too much on collecting the data we are interested in within the constraints of the project and whilst an unopened door should always be noted, at times we just have to move on to the next one. But as much as the blank faces of the doors show little but numbers, behind them is always the complexity, diversity and richness that we seek to know and to understand. More often than not the knowledge that is most important, the data that could help others or inform those with the power to enact change, is sealed, behind closed doors.
More often than not the knowledge that is most important, the data that could help others or inform those with the power to enact change, is sealed, behind closed doors.