GR issues 2007 to present
Researching Ethnicity: Critical Reflections on Conducting Qualitative Research with People Growing Older in Pakistani Muslim Communities in the UK
Dr Maria Zubair

Older Pakistani Muslims who are living and growing older in Britain remain an under-researched group. While there is now a growing interest in researching the lives and experiences of older people living within ethnic minority communities,  methodological literature that offers guidance to researchers and research teams on the practical aspects of conducting qualitative research with ethnic minority older people is scarce, focussing predominantly on issues related to gaining access to minority populations and securing recruitment (e.g. Barata, et al., 2006; Lloyd et al., 2008; McLean and Campbell, 2003). Consequently, other equally important and related challenges faced by researchers (and research teams) relating to cultural and linguistic challenges which have implications for the management of the research process within the limited time and budget, remain largely hidden.

We discuss here our experience of conducting research for our ESRC New Dynamics of Ageing project: Families and Caring in South Asian Communities (1), and highlight how the linguistic and cultural differences of the participants encountered whilst conducting  fieldwork with older people from an ethnic minority group may put greater demands on a research team’s resources. We show how such research therefore requires both careful prior planning and a continuous reflection on the cultural appropriateness and effectiveness of the research procedures in use. We reflect on some of the cultural and linguistic issues that we encountered during our own research and suggest ways in which some of these challenges may be overcome.

Our local Pakistani community

The Pakistani Muslim community where we conducted our fieldwork is a medium sized and fairly close-knit community, socially as well as geographically, with the presence of strong local community networks and groups. It is a diverse community in terms of its members’ social class backgrounds and their origins in Pakistan. The majority of older members in this community speak Urdu and/or Punjabi, with some also being fluent in spoken English. There is variation among the older people within this community in terms of literacy with some being able to read and write in both Urdu and English and others being unable to read or write in any language. This community has not been involved in much academic research prior to our project and, therefore, its older members have little familiarity with either academic research or the language of researchers. This lack of familiarity with academic research, along with the linguistic and cultural differences of our older Pakistani Muslim participants, posed particular challenges for us in relation to access, recruitment and gaining informed consent (see Barata, et al., 2006; Feldman et al., 2008; Lloyd et al., 2008; McLean and Campbell, 2003; Sheikh et al., 2009), and required the adoption of research procedures that were sensitive towards these cultural differences.

Access and recruitment

Given the linguistic requirements of our older Pakistani participants, it was important to present accessible information about the research project to them in their own language in a form which they could comprehend easily (see Feldman et al., 2008). This was crucial not merely for increasing participation rates but also to ensure that participants fully understood the purpose of the study and were thereby freely giving their ‘informed consent’ to participation. We, therefore, produced all our information leaflets and consent forms in both English and Urdu to ensure accessibility to a diverse group of older Pakistanis within the local Pakistani community. This was a time-consuming process and involved producing various versions of these leaflets and forms in each of the two languages and piloting them with key informants to check which version in each language would be more easily understood by the majority of our participants. We went through the same procedure with our interview guides. It was initially developed in English, based on a detailed review of the existing literature, and then translated from English into Urdu and piloted.

Pointing to the difficulties in securing recruitment and obtaining informed consent in studies with ethnic minority groups, where there is obvious language and literacy issues, Lloyd et al. (2008) propose the use of non-traditional methods of securing recruitment and obtaining informed consent, including the delivery of information to participants via audio-recordings and the recording of verbal consent to participation. While these audio-recorded methods may be useful in some contexts, we instead gained the assistance of a close and trusted family member/relative of the participant to assist both in the reading of the information leaflets, and the completion of the consent forms. This was because our own experience suggested that the issues of recruitment and obtaining informed consent from ethnic minority participants are more complex and nuanced than that resultant from language differences or lack of literacy skills in the relevant languages (Zubair et al., 2009b).

Among our participants, even those who could read and write in one of the two languages, preferred to involve a close family member or a friend in the reading of the information, and in their own decision regarding participation. Hence, as previously noted by other researchers (e.g. Barata, et al., 2006; Feldman et al., 2008; see also Kreiger et al., 2001), the issue of trust remains vital to the recruitment and retention of participants who belong to ethnic minority and other marginalised or vulnerable groups. We found that the building of trust and a cultural rapport with our older Pakistani participants was crucial for the latter’s participation in our research (see Zubair et al., in progress). This development of a trusting and comfortable research relationship, however, may often put much greater demands on a researcher’s or a research team’s time than anticipated in the initial planning of the project (see Feldman et al., 2008).

In our case, there was a significant cultural divide between the informal worlds of most of our older Pakistani participants which centred on same-ethnicity and culturally familiar social networks and the perceived White officialdom that we represented through our affiliation with a British university. Many older Pakistanis in the community initially declined participation, expressing their reservations about the purpose of the research project and how the gathered data on their personal lives might be used as evidence against them by the ‘Government’. Participation rates for the study gradually increased through snowballing and referrals as our potential participants became more familiar with our Pakistani researcher over the course of the fieldwork. However the long gap between the actual access to ‘the field’ and the recruitment of participants indicates that engaging in a significant amount of pre-fieldwork planning and entering ‘the field’ prior to formal data collection is invaluable in building up links with the community and was ultimately beneficial in enabling us to exceed our ‘target’ interview quota of 60 older Pakistani participants.

Cultural sensitivities and the researcher’s presence in ‘the field’

How a researcher positions themselves in ‘the field’ and how they are perceived by those they are researching is crucial both to the nature of research relationships developed in ‘the field’ and the knowledge produced within the research process (Archer, 2002; Lee, 2008; Yip, 2008). Given our need to build trust and rapport with our older Pakistani Muslim participants from an under-researched ethnic minority community, and to conduct research that was non-exploitative and ethically sound, it was important that we minimised, as much as possible, the perceived cultural differences between ourselves and those we studied. This involved, on the part of our young female Pakistani researcher, accommodating her dress and social behaviour in ‘the field’ in accordance with the social and cultural norms of our participants (see Zubair et al., 2009a). As common in much qualitative fieldwork, our young Pakistani Muslim researcher also received some indication about how to behave in culturally acceptable ways while in ‘the field’ (see Kondo, 1990; Stewart, 1998) through comments and suggestions with regards to her dress from our older Pakistani participants. Listening to the voices of our older ethnic minority participants and paying attention to their cultural expectations from our researcher was important. Learning about, and following, participants’ social and cultural norms while in ‘the field’ reflected our commitment to learning about their lives without the imposition of our own potentially different cultural values and judgements.

Considerable attention had to be paid also to our use of specific research procedures in ‘the field’ in order to ensure that these were culturally sensitive and flexible. This involved a process of continuous reflection on how these were received by our participants and how these could be adapted to fit in better with our participants’ social and cultural norms as well as our own needs and requirements as researchers. For example, as we moved on with our interviews, we reviewed and developed our interview schedule not merely in relation to the topics and research questions that we were trying to answer but also checked for and rephrased any questions that appeared culturally inappropriate. One question that was rephrased during the fieldwork stage because of its cultural inappropriateness, for instance, asked ‘How do you plan your day/week?’ This question reflected the White and middleclass presumption that every individual plans their day and suggested our cultural difference from most of our older Pakistani participants. This question was therefore rephrased as ‘Do you do any planning at all for your day/week?’. Furthermore, we adjusted our fieldwork timetable to the varied time schedules of our participants – offering them the choice of being interviewed in the evenings, on weekends and also at short notice to our researcher; and allowing them breaks during the interviews for their prayers and any unexpected visitors and phone calls (Zubair et al., 2009b). This helped us significantly in our relationship with our participants by showing our commitment and eagerness to learn about their lives and helped with further recruitment of participants through snowballing and referrals. However it was time-consuming and conflicted with our need to complete our data collection within the specified time schedule.

Interview transcriptions  

An important aspect of the research process that is often neglected within discussions of the challenges of researching in ethnic minority languages is the management and transcription of an extensive in-depth, qualitative, interview data collected in a language other than English. For our research, we conducted 61 in-depth, semi-structured, interviews with older members of our local Pakistani Muslim community. While one of our participants withdrew from the study after giving us a brief interview which lasted for only fifteen minutes, nearly all of the remaining sixty interviews ranged between 45 minutes to 1 hour 30 minutes in length. Moreover, as many as 50 of these interviews were audio-recorded, and only 4 were conducted in English while the remaining 57 were conducted either in Urdu or Punjabi.  

The verbatim transcription and translation of these 57 interviews posed a real challenge for us within the limited funding and time frame available for transcription and translation. When researching in the English language, we only require the transcription of the data; having almost all of the data translated in addition was an extra cost for us in terms of both time and money. A key methodological issue relates to the translation process – should we get our Urdu and Punjabi interviews translated into English simultaneously as they were being transcribed as opposed to first transcribing the audio-recorded interviews into Urdu or Punjabi text and then translating this transcribed text into English. We opted for the former option but acknowledge that this compromises, to a certain extent, the accuracy of the final transcriptions and translations of the interviews produced in English. The high costs of getting transcriptions and translations completed from professional companies also meant that we recruited and trained non-professional transcribers and translators to do this work but, of course, this imposed an extra constraint on our time as we had to recruit several bilingual transcribers, train them and manage the whole process of transcription and translation closely.


In this paper, we have identified some of the linguistic and cultural challenges of conducting qualitative research with an under-researched ethnic minority group. While these challenges relate to the linguistic and cultural differences of our ethnic minority participants, we have illustrated how they have practical implications for the research process and often put a much greater demand than it is generally expected on the researchers’ and research teams’ resources. We suggest three important ways in which some of these challenges can be minimised and overcome during the research process:

  1. Through careful prior planning before entering ‘the field’ and the continuous evaluation of the available resources
  2. Building up of important links with the ethnic community – including not only links with community leaders but with a wider range of contacts within the community – prior to data collection and entering ‘the field’ in advance
  3. Through a process of continuous reflection on the cultural appropriateness and the effectiveness of the research procedures being used                                  


1. While the project includes both the Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities, this paper focuses specifically on our experiences with the Pakistani community.


This research was funded by ESRC grant reference RES 352 25 009 A. We wish to express our thanks and appreciation to all the participants who took part in this study and our contacts in the local Pakistani community.


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Zubair, M., Martin, W. and Victor, C. (2009a) ‘Negotiating Gender, Age, Ethnicity and Power in Fieldwork with Older Pakistani Muslims in the UK: Some Reflections on Dress and the Presentation of the Embodied Self in the ‘Field’, Paper presented at British Sociological Association (BSA) Ageing, Body and Society Conference,  London.

Zubair, M., Martin, W. and Victor, C. (2009b) Exploring Gender, Age, Time and Space when Researching Older People living in Pakistani Muslim Communities in the UK: Reflections from the ‘Field’, Paper presented at British Society of Gerontology (BSG) 38th Annual Conference,Bristol.

Zubair, M., Martin, W. and Victor, C. (In Progress) Learning to be Pakistani, the Female Way: Issues of Identity, Trust and Recruitment when Researching Older Pakistani Muslims in the UK.


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