Our latest Data Interview follows up a presentation at our 2nd Data Conversation. Alison Scott-Baumann (Professor of Society & Belief SOAS) and Dr Shuruq Naguib (Lecturer in Politics, Philosophy and Religion Lancaster) are working on the Re/presenting Islam on Campus project. Re/presenting Islam on Campus is a three year project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). It explores how Islam and Muslims are represented and perceived on UK University campuses.
We had the opportunity to discuss research data issues surrounding their project. It turned out to be a highly interesting conversation on topics such as confidentiality, the limits of anonymisation, legal frameworks and the freedom of speech.
Q: Could you describe the aims of your project?
Alison: Thanks for inviting us. It is strange to be on the receiving end because we have been doing a lot of data collection where we put people at ease and now we are at the other end.
About 4 years ago, I became concerned about the increasing surveillance culture around Muslim communities, particularly on campus because that has an impact on free expression or could do. To me as an experienced researcher this seemed to be a politicisation of a research field if you generally identify Muslims as the “official other” and also tell us that they are dangerous with the 2015 Counter-Terrorism and Security Act and its attendant Prevent duty. What is currently not acknowledged is that the Prevent duty is actually not compulsory but the university sector has adopted it in order to keep their reputations clean.
So it is quite a difficult topic and the project aims to look at four major questions:
- What do university staff and students know about Islam?
- Where do they find that information?
- Thirdly with specific reference to three issues, how do they formulate their opinions? The first issue with regard to Islam is gender because that’s often in the media. The whole hijab discussion for example. Radicalisation, there is no point ignoring it because … [even though] there is no evidence that anybody gets radicalised on campus. And the third one is inter-faith because relations among students of different faiths and intra-faith also is of interest to us because it is a very secular culture we live in and yet for many young people their faith identity is important, more important than we realise because of the secular atmosphere that we created on campus.
- The fourth question is given that there might be some discrepancies self-identified by our participants in their responses to their first three questions, what could be done to improve the quality of the discussion on campus about Islam? How could we improve the discussion about anything that is regarded by university authorities as risky?
So all the way right from the start when I built a team we were all thinking about issues around Islam but also about the implications of that for the campus about free speech. That turned out to be a big issue because that gets more and more discussed even in the press.
Q: How long does the project run?
Alison: It is a 3 year project from 2015-2018. We are two thirds through.
Q: What kind of data do you need to answer your research questions?
Shuruq:We have two sets of data. We have actually completed data collection. We have collected quantitative data through a survey questionnaire. It was designed to be sent to the 6 universitiesi which are participating in the research. Before we received the grant and throughout the first year we were in conversation with the gatekeepers at those universities who were usually senior managers. They promised to facilitate the research including the survey to staff and students.
When we started on-site research, we also wanted to do the questionnaire at the same time but the gatekeepers withdrew their collaboration. The gatekeepers tried to get approval from the vice-chancellors and senior management. We came across a problem on several sites and that is what some describe as survey-fatigue. They were worried about students and staff receiving too many requests to fill in questionnaires. It seemed that universities were very reluctant to facilitate our surveys.
We had to redesign the questionnaire so that it was no no longer specific to the case studies; it is was now nation-wide questionnaire targeting students only, and we went to a private company to do that. The private company had access to students and could build up a sample for us. For example, we wanted our sample to include Muslims and non-Muslims and equal representation of gender and other criteria that we had in mind. We decided not to do the staff questionnaire because you can’t do that through the private companies and the universities were refusing to help. We had to make these decisions because of that particular challenge.
The other subset of data which is qualitative is based on interviews, focus groups, ethnography and curricular material. On each of the six campuses we interviewed 10 students and 10 members of staff. We attempted to handpick staff according to an ideal list which represents a mix of administrative and academic staff, senior and junior staff in different departments, Human Resources, deans and postdocs, etc. The student interviewees were recruited through emails sent through the student union or were invited by researchers. It was a random sample. There were four focus groups on each site, one with staff and three with students. We wanted one focus group to be with Muslims, one with non-Muslims and one mixed. We didn’t always achieve all types and we faced a real challenge in recruiting students. Sometimes non-Muslim students weren’t at all interested in religion or Islam. We tried different techniques such as focus groups in cafes or other hang-out spaces for students but if participants are not interested in your topic no matter how you promote it, it’s really challenging! You might get a self-selected sample of participants who are interested in that topic.
Then we’ve also done ethnography which included observing the sites where students are, talking to different student societies, talking to a wide range of university staff. We attended public events, observing and describing these events: Who attends them, who the speakers are, especially if they are related to topics of religion, Islam, freedom of speech?
Part of the research is also how Islam is studied in the classroom. For each campus we attempted to collate data about all the courses that included a component on Islam. For a long time we used to call this “Islamic Studies” but we don’t mean Islamic Studies in a narrow sense, we mean it in a broad sense. We changed that label for that category of data to “Studying Islam” to broaden it out to include a course in the Faculty of Medicine on for example “Religion and Health”. We collected material through desktop research on all the courses that are offered in the year of the field work which have a component on Islam or religion.
Then we tried to zoom in on some modules reflecting a range of disciplines and approaches, collecting course programme and syllabus for further analysis. Within that sample we also attended some of the classes to observe the actual teaching and how the students respond. So we have a very complex set of data and we are just about to start the analysis stage and there are quite a few challenges there too.
Q: You have collected a wide range of data, from publicly available information to sensitive data like views on religion. Does that have an impact on how you manage your data?
Alison: There are challenges of managing that data but also of collecting it. When I submitted the research proposal to AHRC that was a year before the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act was passed. When I was awarded the grant that act had been passed. So a situation on campus that had already been quite sensitive arguably becomes more so. We were determined as a team to protect the identity of participants and we have established a sequence of events which we hope maximizes that possibility. We do tell our participants that they have to accept that it is actually impossible for us to be completely sure that we can protect them. Because if somebody wants to hack and they have money and expertise then they can get access to stuff.
But I’ll run you quickly through how we do things. There are only two documents that have the allocated number given to a participant and their name. One of them is the consent form. That is kept away from the university, locked up. The other document that has their allocated number and their identity is an Excel spreadsheet which is kept in a virtual vault which has all their characteristics except their political views. We are not collecting political views which the 1998 Data Protection Act lists as something that should be protected. So we are acting in accordance with that Act by seeking to protect their identity.
Once we’ve done that we then tell them before they speak that they have the right to withdraw, the right to anonymity and confidentiality and we give them a timeline so they have six months in which they could say “I’m actually not comfortable with this” but nobody has done that. What we cannot be sure of, of course, is who are the people who walked away from the possibility of speaking to us? It could be the silent majority. We will never know that. We have worked through the student unions to secure the interested students but if something pops up on their screens regarding opinions on Islam there are people who might think “I don’t want to enter that arena” for all sorts of different reasons.
Q: Can you expand on your data security and confidentiality measures?
Alison: We keep our master spreadsheet encrypted via VeraCrypt which is a non-aligned programme unlike BitLocker which belongs to Microsoft.
In order to conduct an interview or a focus group we allocate a number to each person and before we did this we thought participants will find this ridiculous. But actually, with focus group people find it liberating which is the ideal. Every time they spoke they said “Number 32 speaking” and they would even say things like “I would like to endorse what Number 42 has just said”. That was perfect!
Q: Instead of a name badge people would wear a number?
Alison: No name badge but a numbered postit on the table in front of them and we know who they are if we want to track back. That worked much better than we thought it possibly could.
Then before the interviews and focus groups are transcribed we had a company called Divas because it is a lot of material. They have their own confidentiality agreement and we created one from SOAS as well. Divas destroy the original audios after a couple of weeks. We keep them but will destroy them some time in the second year. They will never be archived.
After the transcripts come back to us we have to clean them up. We have to take out any mention of names.
Shuruq: Let me add to that. Two issues have come up when cleaning the data.
Q: By cleaning do you mean anonymising?
Shuruq: Yes, anonymising and removing any identifiers. Even when we use numbers in the focus groups they will refer to sites on their particular campus which will make locations identifiable. Or they would refer to a lecturer by name or to a course title. These are all ways by which confidentiality on that campus would be undermined. So we weren’t anonymising just the participants but also ensuring the anonymity of the campuses. Although the campuses are all named in our research we have agreed that when we come to write up the findings, we will not identify the campuses, because of sensitive issues such as how does the university implement Prevent policies. There could be some negative opinions, some difficult experiences. We don’t want to link those to specific campuses. So we are cleaning the data more extensively than normal perhaps.
It is quite challenging because as you are stripping down the data you lose context. If there is a university in Wales the Welsh context actually has certain factors that are important to remember when you are analysing the data. Or a specific college in London, how do we do that? We were negotiating the cleaning of the data with regard to gender, ethnicity, background, names of places. We tried to replace these with things that identify these elements but which maintain the anonymity. If it is a café we would strip down the name but still reflect the fact that it is a café in a student union.
But sometimes, especially with interviews we’ve had people who have roles, for example a student who is the Head of a Society or who is active on campus, is well-known and speaks in a certain way. Even if we clean the transcription if we want to quote him he might still be identified by his peers and people who know him.
And then one of the things we are coming up against is transliteration because as we look at how Islam is studied, some of the courses are linked with language training and attract overseas students. It is normal to hear different languages in this context. In an interview different languages could be used. Most of our team members speak several languages so participants have felt at ease using other languages. So how do we transliterate or translate? Sometimes it’s copious work. Some of the terms used in Arabic have specific religious connotations.
This is also sensitive data because often Arabic is perceived suspiciously as a sign of being foreign, as a sign of being a bit radical or of being committed to certain religious concepts. Do you keep the Arabic in the data? Certain words like Hijab and Jihad are loaded with negative connotations in public discourses. On some occasions we made the decision not to send a particular interview to the transcriber because it would endanger the person because they have expressed political views or they used a language that might be misunderstood. To protect the identity of that particular person on one occasion, our postdoc decided to transcribe the interview herself.
Q: Will you be able to share your data?
Alison: It will go into the UK Data Archive. That is a commitment we made to the AHRC and the ESRC who are partly funding us. There are definitely difficulties in assessing the risk of re-identification because it is impossible for us to know how recognisable somebody is to their colleagues or their friends by the way they are expressing themselves.
Q: Can I just confirm that you will share only transcriptions?
Alison: Yes, no audio, no video. But also, we haven’t decided what level of sharing is needed. We have already discussed this with the UK Data Archive and they have three access levels. Our data will not be Open Access. Some of it might be open to all registered users; other data might be accessible to approved researchers only. There might be two tiers. I think our concern all the way through was not that that anybody has said anything dangerous because nobody has but that it might be construed as overly political by somebody who is looking at that data. If one of our participants has a view on foreign policy that doesn’t concur with the Government – in a democracy that should be possible but may be problematic in the current climate.
Q: Thanks for the explanation. What kind of research data services can Lancaster University offer to help your project?
Alison: I am personally very interested in the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which will come into force in 2018. It appears to be inviting member states to decide if they tighten up on consent. This is an issue to do with Big Data and the way in which it is possible for all of us to covertly record or film each other, track each other. Anything is possible now. So the issues about consent may impact upon our ethnography. We did nothing covertly but inevitably if we were in a big open meeting we may have made notes about something somebody said and even if we don’t identify them we haven’t asked their consent. We would like guidance to whether this is going to clamp down issues around consent or if it is business as usual which means that if you go to reasonable lengths to protect somebody’s identity then that is acceptable.
We would also like you to be our critical friend [laughs]. We have a year to go. I think we are well prepared and we worked really hard on this aspect but there may be issues that we haven’t covered.
Q: Can I ask about the ethnography, field notes and observations, will you be able to share them?
Alison: I give you a specific example. At campuses where it was possible we secured the approval of members of staff to allow us to sit in a lesson. The students were told when we were there but we didn’t ask each of them to sign a consent form. For example a student in one class I was in about international politics described how her relatives were caught up in border violence in Eastern Europe. I didn’t have her name but I made a note of the fact that this was an example of the fact that a really difficult issue can be taught so well that the trust between the student and the staff is so high that a student can self-disclose.
But it might be necessary under the new General Data Protection Act to remove that and simply say that there was evidence that trust was high rather than given the specific example. To me it doesn’t seem that I am endangering that person’s identity, absolutely not.
Shuruq: And the other difficulty is of course that we have also done ethnography at public events which could have been organised by the chaplaincy or a student society. Again, if you wanted to identify these events that can be done. These societies often set up event pages.
It could also be a lecture on Islam and the media, which was one of the public lectures I attended. The speaker is well known and the event was well publicized. The discussions and kind of questions that emerged, my observations look at how the audience was made up ( mostly Muslims, very few of the white students attended during that talk). The ones who are interested in Islam in the media are those who are impacted by the media representation which is largely Muslim students on campus.
How do you keep aspects of the context that shed light on the meaningfulness of this event and which makes the ethnography useful without undermining anonymity?
Q: One final question: In our trainings we often hear the concern that if you include a statement in a consent form that anonymised data will be shared publicly you might get fewer participants. Is that something you have experienced?
Alison: No, participants accept that. The point is that if they come to meet us, if they made that step that means that the information that was sent out by staff or student bodies has convinced them that this is an ethically planned project where we are not going in with preconceptions. If we then say that anonymised data will be shared they accept that.
The issue I am raising is the one that the ICO [Information Commissioner’s Office] hasn’t really clarified is this issue about would you have to get a consent form from thirty people in a classroom which at one level is a reasonable extension of consent issues but challenges our understanding of ethnography.
Shuruq: Of course we don’t collect any information on the students; we don’t know who they are. But the course outlines and lecture names will not be anonymised in class ethnography so that is something we need to be reflecting upon. The other thing is that the lecturer of one class asked if we were allowing students to withdraw from the class and whether we are asking for their consent. Our team member asked for a verbal consent and the lecturer gave students the opportunity to stay or withdraw from the class. So this could be an issue for some people.
Q: Do you have any final comments on your project with regards to data?
Shuruq: On one campusat a private university they had a previous experience of research where the anonymity of some of the interviewees was not protected and the way they were represented in the book that came out of the research was very negative. They were extremely reluctant to allow us in without sufficient guarantees that we are going to protect their identity. But we are facing a serious dilemma because it is such a unique campus that it is impossible to report anything on it without revealing which one it is. That is a serious challenge.
Alison: Just to follow on from that. We mentioned right at the beginning free speech. These strictures which are ethically motivated like the possible new legislation [GDPR] about consent they are at one level eminently sensible but at another level they may make it almost impossible to do research on people’s ability to express themselves freely. If people can’t express themselves freely because it might compromise them or their institution then we can’t do the research. So it is a very clever double bind but it’s not good for democracy because the ability to express oneself freely has possibly become, seen in the public eye, the ability to have a strong opinion about something. Instead of what I think which is going right back to Socrates where you talk something through in order to understand it better and understand your own decision making processes. For young adults at university the heuristic value of freedom of expression, as long as is not rude or illegal, is absolutely paramount to having citizens who are able to conduct themselves wisely in this complex world! There are huge issues at stake here!
Alison, Shuruq, thank you very much for this interesting interview!
The interview was conducted by Hardy Schwamm @hardyschwamm