Overseas Fieldwork in Brussels and the European Parliament

Nandor Revesz is an SCDTP-funded PhD candidate in Politics and International Relations of the University of Portsmouth, and part of the Citizenship, Governance and Security Thematic Pathway Cluster. His PhD is on the European Parliamentary Research Service (an in-house think tank) of the European Parliament, and the effect of this organisation (and the expertise produced by it) on EU policy-making processes. Other research interests include legislative studies, the role of regions and local governments within the system of European multi-level governance and the ‘democratic deficit’ of the EU.

Funding opportunities provided by the SCDTP include support for undertaking fieldwork abroad. I made use this opportunity to travel to Brussels and conduct exploratory interviews within the European Parliament (EP) between the 14th and the 18th of May 2018. In this blog post, I will explore what organising and conducting this fieldwork trip for the purposes of my research project entailed, what I got out of it, as well as provide a few tips for those who are planning to conduct interview-based fieldwork abroad in the future.

Rationale and Organisation of the Trip

My project examines the creation and functioning of the European Parliamentary Research Service (an in-house think tank within the European Parliament) as well as its intervening effect on the decision-making processes of the EP. Seeking out and assessing the perceptions and insights of administrators and decision-makers within the EP through surveys and semi-structured interviews forms a large part of this undertaking. Therefore, it was very important for me to start building networks and talking to people within the EP and the European Parliamentary Research Service at the earliest possible stage of the research.

Making use of the funding opportunity for fieldwork abroad provided by the SCDTP was therefore a natural fit to my project. Nevertheless, the trip was exploratory in its nature. As the project was and is still in its initial phases, instead of focusing on data collection, I was eager to test my draft questionnaires’ quality, clarity and fitness for purpose through talking to people within the EPRS. Furthermore, prior discussions with the EPRS have led to the prospect of a six-month long visiting scholar position within the organisation. For this reason, travelling to Brussels was also an opportunity to meet the person responsible for these arrangements and discuss the research project as well as the details and requirements of the position.

After preparing a business case for the fieldwork trip and concluding the ethical review of the research project, I obtained funding from the SCDTP during early February (as well as assistance with booking some arrangements, which reduced the upfront financial burden of the trip), providing me with three months to finish preparing for the trip.

How did it go? What’s next?

Arrangements and discussions with potential interviewees during March and April 2018 led to 7 interviews undertaken during my visit (including a conversation with an assistant to an UK MEP over the phone after I had returned from Brussels). The advice which I have received concerning my questionnaire and research design ranged from smaller additions (such as additional category suggestions concerning some multiple-choice questions) to ideas which inspired me to think about bigger potential changes in the way I will conduct the data collection. Furthermore, the trip has led to the confirmation of the visiting scholar position within the organisation: a platform which will enable me to collect data and conduct interviews in Brussels for six months in 2019.

It is without question that the overseas fieldwork trip to Brussels was very beneficial for my project and professional development. Gaining feedback from the kinds of people who I will interview during the later stages of my research concerning my research design and questionnaire helped me to reflect on my work in ways which I would not have been able to otherwise.  Furthermore, this opportunity enabled me to lay the groundwork for my upcoming extended research residence in Brussels by establishing contacts and to gain essential contextual information within the European Parliamentary Research Service itself. The trip has also bolstered my confidence and enthusiasm about organising and conducting fieldwork in general. I am looking forward to returning to Brussels and conducting more interviews!

A Few Points of Advice

If you are preparing to undertake exploratory interviews through a fieldwork tip abroad, here are four points of advice which you might like to consider in advance / during the trip:

  • Contact many more people in advance than the minimum number of interviews you need: even if you will only be able to interview some of them, creating new contacts will benefit you and your research project in any case.
  • Research the profile of your interviewee in advance: it could help with facilitating conversation during the interview as well as provide context and nuance when assessing their insights.
  • Prepare for the possibility that some interviewees won’t have the time to go over the whole of your questionnaire: make sure that you know which aspects of your study / questions are the ones which are the most important to ask about.
  • Enjoy the city and the wider region you are conducting your fieldwork in and make sure that in addition to your work, you have time to relax during your time there!
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