From 2013 to 2017, I lived and worked in Ireland. At University College Cork, I undertook my doctoral research project on the consequences of Ireland’s harsh austerity policies on youth living in disadvantaged urban neighbourhoods (van Lanen, 2017). I employed qualitative methods, predominantly interviews with young adults, to investigate their encounters and experiences of austerity. Thus, I spoke with youth aged 18 to 25 in Knocknaheeny (Cork) and Ballymun (Dublin). These two neighbourhoods are among the most deprived locally and nationally, due to a combination of low educational achievements, high levels of unemployment, low incomes, and several other indicators. With this project, I aimed to understand how austerity is experienced in everyday life by a group that is vulnerable to the negative consequences of crisis, recession, and austerity.

Ireland is one of the countries that implemented a severe austerity package after accepting an external assistance package from the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission. I picked Ireland for my research into everyday austerity because its population predominantly speaks English rather than Greek, Spanish or Portuguese. Although sharing a language with youth from Ballymun and Knocknaheeny, I experienced some hesitation in establishing contacts and recruiting research participants in these neighbourhoods. A sudden awareness of my positionality regularly stopped me when I was about to call someone, start a conversation, or attend an event. Differences in social identity and status made me fear that youth from these neighbourhoods would not take me seriously. The Knocknaheeny population was Irish, was sometimes stigmatised, and regularly with low income and lower educational achievements. I was a highly educated, financially-secure foreigner working at University College Cork. I feared this difference was too big, and this fear was so overwhelming I would freeze.

Previously, Claire Mansfield (2011) also conducted research in Knocknaheeny. In her thesis, she writes that she felt an outsider in the neighbourhood because of her differing clothing style, accent, and because she was unfamiliar in the area. Fiona Kelleher (2013) was from Knocknaheeny and investigated teenagers in the neighbourhood. She established contact with local youth smoothly as she was familiar with Knocknaheeny and its inhabitants. However, the fact that she was conducting research clearly influenced her interactions with local youth too. I feared that, if Cork researchers were experiencing difficulties to be accepted and respected, this would be further amplified for a complete stranger.

In Body and soul, Loïc Wacquant describes his fieldwork as a white French academic in a black boxing club in Chicago. Wacquant argues that his French background made it easier to establish contacts in an American ghetto. He writes

‘(…) my French nationality granted me a sort of statutory exteriority with respect to the structure of relations of exploitation, contempt, misunderstanding, and mutual distrust that oppose blacks and whites in America. I benefited from the historical capital of sympathy that France enjoys in the African-American population […] and from the simple fact of not having the hexis of the average white American, which continually marks, if against his or her own best intentions, the impenetrable border between the communities.’ (Wacquant, 2004, p. 10)

Now, Cork is not Chicago, and youth from Knocknaheeny do not possess a different skin colour than me. However, I still found solace in this paragraph. And indeed, in Knocknaheeny, my ‘Dutchness’ proved valuable as it facilitated contact, and both youth and older inhabitants were quickly interested in my presence.

During Cork Culture Night 2014, I was the only ‘unfamiliar’ visitor at the Knocknaheeny hip-hop event. A Dutchman interested in the neighbourhood was received enthusiastically by the present youth. During the whole evening, I was approached by some and introduced to others. Like in the situation described by Wacquant, my ‘Dutchness’ reduced the sometimes tricky and charged relationship of misunderstanding and mutual distrust between Knocknaheeny youth and other areas of Cork city because I was an obvious outsider. Furthermore, especially male attendants were interested in the liberal Dutch attitude to recreational drugs or shared enthusiastic stories about their trips to Amsterdam. The Dutch drugs image thus provided a form of what Wacquant describes as ‘capital of sympathy’.

Ultimately, my status as an outsider, as a highly-educated Dutch qualitative researcher, did not hinder my research project. Perhaps, it even assisted me. Nonetheless, my insecurities never entirely disappeared. Simultaneously, others, like Marielle Zill, have shown that outsider-identities can also frustrate research and access to participants. Personal contact is in the nature of most qualitative research, resulting in a situation where various spheres of personal and academic identity influence the relationship between the researcher and their participants. It is impossible to bridge these differences in identities entirely. Still, it is essential to be conscious of their potential impacts on the relation with participants. Qualitative researchers should carefully consider how we position ourselves, what questions we ask, and how these impact the practice, analysis and results of our research. While this is not always easy, it is essential for high-quality, in-depth qualitative research.

Sander van Lanen


Kelleher, F. (2013). Place, teenagers, and urban identities: A new social geography of young people in Cork. Cork: University College Cork.

Mansfield, C. (2011). Social sustainability and the city: An investigation into the environmental geographies of two neighbourhoods in Cork. Cork: University College Cork.

Wacquant, L. (2004). Body & soul: Notebooks of an apprentice boxer. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

van Lanen (2017) Youth and austerity in the city: geographies of precarity in disadvantaged urban areas in Ireland. Cork: University College Cork.