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Is the peer ethnographic approach a suitable method for researching lives of undocumented migrants?

  • International Institute of Social Studies The Hague (EUR)


This article introduces an approach, a set of methodologies, that may be of interest to researchers who wish to understand the realities of undocumented people and other ‘difficult to contact’ groups, including in the Netherlands. Given that there are proposals to criminalise undocumented status in the Netherlands, something that has already happened elsewhere, the probability is that this group of people may become even harder to research in future. We use ‘undocumented people’ to refer to migrants from outside the EU, who have entered or stayed in The Netherlands in this case, in an irregular manner.
Is the peer ethnographic approach a suitable
method for researching lives of undocumented
Latefa Narriman Guemar & Helen Hintjens
The ethnographic approach used by anthropologists is based on the premise that
what people say about social life and behaviour changes according to the level of
familiarity and trust established between the researcher and researched (Price &
Hawkins, 2002: 1328).
This article introduces an approach, a set of methodologies, that may be of inter‐
est to researchers who wish to understand the realities of undocumented people
and other ‘difficult to contact’ groups, including in the Netherlands. Given that
there are proposals to criminalise undocumented status in the Netherlands,
something that has already happened elsewhere, the probability is that this group
of people may become even harder to research in future. We use ‘undocumented
people’ to refer to migrants from outside the EU, who have entered or stayed in
The Netherlands in this case, in an irregular manner. We use this term in prefer‐
ence to clandestine, unauthorized or illegal (Merlino & Parkin, 2011: 3).
The method we discuss in this article is a ‘peer ethnographic approach’ or PEER,
which in full stands for Participatory Ethnographic Evaluation and Research.1 The
PEER approach consists of a set of quite flexible qualitative research tools. PEER
is based in anthropological methods, and can be especially useful when ‘hidden’ or
covert aspects of social life are being researched, such as sex work, domestic work‐
ers, or the parallel economy. Trust is essential for reliable research results in these
fields, and verifiable data quality may have to be balanced with having access to
informants in the first place. Most directive interview and survey methods seek
standard information, and are based on the assumption that informants will feel
able to answer a range of questions without incriminating themselves or running
any personal risk. Where this is not the case, the PEER ethnographic approach
*Helen Hintjens’ research interests and publications include work on advocacy for the rights of
undocumented people, especially in the EU context.
Latefa Geumar is a doctoral candidate, affiliated with the Centre for Migration Policy Research of
Swansea University. She is also affiliated with the London School of Economics in London.
1The PEER website is hosted at the following website of Options, a consultancy company that pro‐
duces research using the PEER approach, especially in relation to sexual and reproductive health
and other sensitive issues <>.
Tijdschrift over Cultuur & Criminaliteit 2013 (3) 1 69
Latefa Narriman Guemar & Helen Hintjens
may be able to assist the researcher. Such a method, being ethnographic and also
embedded in the researched community, is based on the recognition that trust is
crucial to any successful or reliable data with vulnerable groups.
At the broader societal and political levels, as Engbersen and Broeders put it, two
contradictory logics combine to exclude the undocumented not only from entitle‐
ments and protection, but from much social research: ‘Policies operating under
the first logic block irregular migrants’ access to documentation and registration
in order to exclude them, while policies operating the second logic aim to register
and document the individual irregular migrant himself in order to exclude him’,
or her (2009: 871). We do have quite detailed information about detention statis‐
tics, some about public health, but less and less about the daily life situations and
vulnerabilities of the undocumented population of European societies.
Starting with the 2002 EU Directive ‘Strengthening the Penal Framework to Pre‐
vent the Facilitation of Unauthorised Entry, Transit and Residence’, across the EU
policy change has been directed towards removing the rights of those redefined as
‘unwanted humanity’ through a creeping criminalisation of their lives and needs.
In the Netherlands, the moves towards criminalizing undocumented people,
which were formalized in a legal proposal in 2012, can be traced back to this EU
Directive of ten years earlier. A raft of anti-trafficking and securitized anti-immi‐
gration measures among member states have resulted in a strange combination
of ignoring the undocumented and irregular migrants within European societies,
and surveilling them mainly in order to exclude, detain or deport them. Reliable
data on this vulnerable population has thus become highly skewed towards
securitized goals of surveillance rather than understanding of their life situations.
The danger of information being used punitively is also a real risk for researchers
working on the undocumented.
Of course, sceptics would argue that in-depth ethnographic research is quite pos‐
sible even with the most marginalised people, and this is a fair argument. How‐
ever, where the PEER approach comes into its own is when time and resources are
both lacking. Much research on marginalised and vulnerable groups of people is
quite urgent, as their problems can be life-threatening. This is when PEER meth‐
ods come into their own, since a relationship is built up between researchers and
the PEER researcher team within the vulnerable communities. The key elements
of the PEER method had been described by Neil Price and Kirstan Hawkins, the
main researchers behind this approach (Price & Hawkins, 2002). The key ele‐
ments are as follows: (i) anonymity of the method and relations of trust as its cor‐
nerstone; (ii) generating in-depth quality data about hard-to-reach informants
(for replicable quantitative data from identifiable sources the PEER method is not
suitable); (iii) flexibility of the PEER approach to context. After introducing the
PEER method, each of these aspects is considered in turn.
Introducing PEER
The key idea behind the PEER ethnographic method is that members of the com‐
munity of study become trained to act as key informants for the core research
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Is the peer ethnographic approach a suitable method for researching lives of undocumented migrants?
team. Not only will these PEER-trained interviewers select whom they speak to,
they will also help to protect the identity and details of those they speak to in a
number of ways. First, peer researchers are trained in how to interview non-direc‐
tively members of their own communities. Since they are already personally
familiar, or friendly, with those they interview, a lot of time is saved in terms of
building trust so that research can be meaningful. A relationship based on shared
cultural and social networks helps to establish rapport.
PEER is still relatively new, and has mainly been used in applied academic
research in the fields of health, including sexual and reproductive health.
Researchers who have pioneered the method claim it has enabled them to ‘get
beyond the surface’ of sensitive problems, especially where the research is focused
on social groups stigmatised by the wider society, such as sex workers, those with
HIV and AIDS, or criminalised undocumented migrants. From the evidence of
reports produced on the basis of the method, it seems that personal issues are
addressed in an unusually frank way and that new insights do emerge about the
key issues confronting sex workers, or dilemmas around how to influence practi‐
ces of female genital mutilation among migrants, for example (for the first see
Hawkins, Nsengiyuma & Williamson, 2005 in the context of Rwanda; for the sec‐
ond Norman, Hemmings, Hussein & Otoo-Oyortey, 2009 for their findings about
FGM in London).2 The PEER method has also been adapted for use with monitor‐
ing, for example by DFID (the UK Department for International Development) in
Nepal, where it was re-labelled ‘KIM’ or key informant monitoring (for this see
Rolfe, 2006).
A critical aspect of the PEER approach is that researchers come back after inter‐
viewing their peers, to re-inform the main research team about their findings. A
series of debriefing interviews are organised for this purpose, and data is analysed
with the aim of enabling the research team as a whole to build up ‘an insider’s
perspective’ of the subject matter of the research. For a discussion of how the
PEER method arose, it is also useful to refer to the original designers of the
method, Neil Price and Kirstan Hawkins’ work (Price & Hawkins, 2002).
As PEER researchers feed their own findings back to the research team through a
series of debriefing interviews, usually with individual PEER researchers, the data
thus generated are analysed. In this way it is hoped that an insider’s perspective
into the research problem can gradually built up, layer upon layers, from the evi‐
dence generated by successive different debriefing sessions (Price & Hawkins,
2002). The PEER method has often allowed unexpected findings to emerge and
this is obviously beneficial for the whole research team which is writing up the
findings into academic and policy-oriented research (Crawley, Jennings & Price,
2011). Particular attention should be paid in the PEER approach to gathering
data through narratives rather than questions and answers: stories and examples
are mainly used in discussion to illuminate the issues under investigation, about
which the PEER researcher also needs to be informed, and clear.
2For all the reports produced in the series, in countries including Rwanda, Nepal, Ethiopia, Tanza‐
nia, but also in Wales and London in the UK. For downloads of all the reports, see:
Tijdschrift over Cultuur & Criminaliteit 2013 (3) 1 71
Latefa Narriman Guemar & Helen Hintjens
As Price and Hawkins put it: ‘(o)ver the past two decades there has been a notable
increase in the use of qualitative methods for applied policy research’ (2002:
1327). The PEER approach thus also arises from this much wider social trend
towards more ‘situated’ and contextualized and less ‘blue-print’ (and hence less
quantitative) set of approaches for exploring social problems, particularly with
‘liminal’ groups of informants or issues that are ambiguous or contentious in rela‐
tion to laws and social norms.
Anonymity and trust
Originally in using the PEER method, it was considered important that: ‘… all
interviews [be] … conducted in the third person, in an attempt to elicit narrative
accounts of how interviewees conceptualise the social behaviour of “others” in
their networks, not accounts of their own behaviour or normative statements
about how they “ought” to behave’ (Price & Hawkins, 2002: 1329). Speaking in
the third person was thought to help informants talk about issues that might
otherwise incriminate them, and was particularly suited for issues of sexuality,
criminality and ‘below the radar’ forms of socially or legally proscribed practices.
Putting oneself in the shoes of undocumented, criminalised individuals living in
The Netherlands, is increasingly uncomfortable. Since they barely manage to sur‐
vive, their health is likely to be damaged and they may have a criminal record sim‐
ply from being in The Netherlands. They will fear police and sometimes also the
local authorities. Those from countries like Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan and Sri
Lanka will also experience sharp internal conflicts with their own compatriots,
which can further complicate how to reach them for research purposes. Those
who have fled authoritarian regimes often fear both their home government and
the government in The Netherlands.
Within established social networks of trust, the aim of the PEER approach is that
identities should be securely protected as far as possible, so as to minimise risks
for informants. This is critical to the success of the PEER method. As Hawkins,
Nsengiyuma and Williamson note in another study using this approach: ‘All inter‐
views are confidential and peer researchers do not note down the names or
addresses of interviewees or other people in their social network’, giving them
pseudonyms instead (2005: 5). The trained peer interviewers do not normally ask
for names or other identifiable details of those they talk to. Instead they can note
down basic details, such as age, gender, location, of course the date and time of
interviews, and such information as is relevant, such as health status, residence,
professional background or educational background. The focus is not on these
qualities of the informants, however, but on the stories they tell.
The logic of qualitative approaches that explore the powerful narratives of experi‐
ence is important because, as Charles Tilly suggests, stories ‘do social work …
[and] help account for the puzzling, unexpected, dramatic, problematic or exem‐
plary events’ and explanations (Tilly, 2006: 93). Stories can inform policy makers,
who can in this way hear of things they may not have directly experienced them‐
selves. And only within a secure relationship of trust with a peer researcher, are
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Is the peer ethnographic approach a suitable method for researching lives of undocumented migrants?
informants likely to share insights that relate to personal or group experiences.
The question of whether they talk of themselves or of others whom they know, is
returned to at the end when we discuss a study with undocumented migrants in
South Wales, which used the PEER approach. To resume the main point: when
trained interviewers basically listen to stories told, both about the informants’
lives, and about the experiences of others they may know, this requires careful
preparation and a relationship of mutual trust. It is not possible to proscribe gen‐
eral stories or rumours that informants may convey – but these too are of inter‐
est to policy-makers and researchers seeking to resolve intractable and complex
social or criminal issues. As the researcher listens to the stories of others, the
individuals interviewed must feel comfortable enough to provide the detailed
information that can help to ‘fill in the gaps’ in the evidence-base needed to
improve the soundness of policy decisions later on.
However, at least initially, talking to the peer researcher about ‘other people’ or ‘a
person I know’ helps to resolve one serious ethical dilemma that could otherwise
arise in such a research approach. To ensure that the principle of ‘do no harm’ is
adhered to in relation to often fragile existing relations of trust among undocu‐
mented people and their close associates, peer researchers need to avoid accumu‐
lating, and passing on, personal information about their interviewees. This is
because such information carries with it the risk of including potentially incrimi‐
nating personal information that might place interviewees at risk. Of course, the
exercise of discretion by peer ethnographic researchers can lead to frustration
and doubt on the part of principal researchers, who may be intent on hearing ‘the
full story’ and may not themselves trust the peer researchers. This is another
dimension of trust, therefore, that needs to be ensured in the use of the method.
The selection of individual PEER researchers is thus critical to the credibility or
otherwise of data generated through such a ‘rapid’ ethnographic approach based
on existing relations of trust. Selecting popular, well-connected individuals is not
enough. They must not only be popular within their own social circles, they must
also show capacity and promise for research, reliability in transcribing conversa‐
tions and should be proven to ‘conduct themselves well’. Being respected and
being able to interview others in a respectful way are not one and the same; and
respect for others will be more important than being in a position of authority,
when it comes to selecting men and women for PEER training as interviewers.
Age, gender, occupation, status and so on are less important than the ability to
gain trust and report carefully and with understanding for the narratives of
others. What these peer ethnographic researchers bring to the research process is
the gift of ‘short-circuiting’ often very lengthy and costly processes of building
relationships of trust with vulnerable and marginalised informants. It is unavoid‐
able that such peer interviewers will use their discretion as gatekeepers and key
informants; it is indeed important that they do so, when it is required in order to
protect anonymity.
However, interviewing methods must also be designed to ensure that existing
relations of trust, drawn on by the PEER approach, are not undermined through
the research process, unintentionally. Any misuse of findings or reporting of
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Latefa Narriman Guemar & Helen Hintjens
information that can put the researched groups at risk, for instance, should be
treated with sensitivity and care. There is always the danger of police raids, of
people being arrested or detained on the basis of misused personal data. There
are thus bound to be limits to disclosure, using the PEER approach, which may
frustrate some researchers. An undoubted constraint is the priority of not expos‐
ing the informants to any additional risks of ‘negative’ surveillance, for instance.
Research teams thus need to make a consistent effort to protect both peer ethno‐
graphic researchers and their informants, and to build up a research team that
works to ensure confidentiality along with cross-checking of narratives against
wider sets of data. The understanding being sought is less of ‘facts’ or institu‐
tional policies, than of subtle and contradictory processes of inclusion and exclu‐
sion which are often simultaneously at play.
Digging out data: researching the difficult-to-reach
Most topics researched in the past using the PEER method have been, almost by
definition, sensitive and involve hard-to-reach groups of people. Whether it is
sexual behaviour and HIV-AIDS, or reproductive health of teenage girls, strategies
for coping with homelessness, or criminalisation of livelihoods, the peer ethno‐
graphic approach can resolve a number of ethical and practical dilemmas that
researchers studying such topics inevitably face. Its originators claim that since
the PEER ethnographic approach emphasises the quality of interviews over the
quantity of interviewees contacted, more in-depth understandings of people’s
lives become possible. The basis of this belief is the notion that in the social
world, and especially for almost invisible problems: ‘a few cases produce a more
thorough understanding of social life than the superficial exploration of many
cases’ (Price & Hawkins, 2002: 1329).
There are of course major methodological challenges in this, for those who wish
to claim that their research on the lives of vulnerable groups, for instance those
who straddle the border between legality and illegality, have wider application.
Researching undocumented people’s life situations, whether in the Netherlands
or elsewhere in the EU, is undoubtedly a methodological challenge. Funding for
such research is often lacking, especially compared with funding for instance of
studies of regular migrants’ ‘integration’ into host societies. The criminalisation
measures proposed by successive Dutch governments are already in place in other
countries like France. Such measures have the effect of making undocumented
people even more difficult-to-reach as a dispersed and ‘shadow’ community.
Even without criminalisation, accessing accurate information from undocument‐
ed people’s own perspective is difficult. This is because trusting the impartiality
of researchers, academic or otherwise, is risky for those whose housing, health
and freedom from detention or deportation, may depend on remaining unidenti‐
fied. In the Netherlands today, even without criminalisation measures, undocu‐
mented people fear both detention and deportation, with good reason. In such a
context where fear of authorities and formal institutions is pervasive, finding a
methodologically ethical way of digging out data about lives of vulnerable people
74 Tijdschrift over Cultuur & Criminaliteit 2013 (3) 1
Is the peer ethnographic approach a suitable method for researching lives of undocumented migrants?
is an ethical imperative. Before the realities of undocumented people’s lives can
be understood, therefore, let alone acted on by policy-makers, researchers must
overcome some of their own misgivings about the kinds of methods that can be
used to gather data.
Both the researcher and those s/he researches should have relations based on
mutual trust. Yet although sampling through prior social contacts can help, and
though it helps that an unstructured interview is couched in terms of third par‐
ties, the main challenge will be to find peer researchers who are widely trusted
within their communities. In order to research how undocumented people will
cope with criminalisation, rising detention, destitution and even deportation,
such information needs to be constructed in such a way that informants feel cer‐
tain the information they provide will not be misused for surveillance purposes.
PEER-trained interviewers should be ensured of some discretion over how much
and what information they disclose from the interviews. Some views or narratives
they may decide should not be reported in order to protect their informants. For
instance, disclosure about hypothetical criminal activity might lead to investiga‐
tions by the police or other authorities, and this would undermine social relation‐
ships and trust. The fact that information is drawn from discussions about other
people, carried on in the third person, and not about the interviewees themselves,
minimises this ethical dilemma in researching sensitive topics like the status and
activities of undocumented people, who live ‘below the radar’.
The point here is that as a social problem goes ‘liminal’, some people tend to be
redefined as outside the scope of established sets of rights and entitlements, and
even our research methods may have to become more ‘liminal’. Surveys and sets
of open or closed questions are fine where settled groups of citizens or immi‐
grants are concerned. However, ‘The PEER method is particularly suitable for
working with groups that are difficult to reach using conventional research meth‐
ods’ (Crawley, Hemmings & Price, 2011: 13). In the PEER approach, as has
already been discussed, where a series of relationships of trust are built up ‘…
between (core research) staff and peer researchers’, entry points for working with
difficult-to-reach target groups can be established (Hawkins, Nsengiyuma & Wil‐
liamson, 2005: 6). It is the entry points themselves – in the form of trained peer
interviewer researchers – that makes the approach meaningful in research terms.
Imagine doing research about ‘parallel’ workers in the building sector, or in agro-
industry. How would one understand the dynamics at play in their working lives,
and in their coping strategies? A survey carried out by unknown interviewers
would be unlikely to produce reliable answers or much meaningful data. The
workers and their employers would only talk with people they could trust, and
even then talking in the first person would be avoided. One might fear being
incriminated, or even covertly filmed or taped. Since talking can lead to prosecu‐
tion, undocumented migrants will prefer an open-ended qualitative approach
centred on narratives about others. This is much more likely to produce findings
that bear some relation to the situation at hand. Criminologists and other social
scientists could question how realistic it is to rely on survey data or unknown
interviews when it comes to hard-to-reach informants who have good reason to
fear the authorities. Even if the concern is to produce research that can inform
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Latefa Narriman Guemar & Helen Hintjens
policy makers, this should include a strong qualitative dimension if it is to reflect
the core concerns of undocumented people themselves, and those who support
them on a daily basis.
Drawing on existing relationships of trust, working in the networks between
PEER-trained researchers and their friends, the PEER approach can more rapidly
bring relevant, mainly narrative data to inform the research team’s findings.
Unlike other ‘participatory’ research tools such as focus group discussions and
semi-structured interviews, PEER researchers do not need a pre-defined set of
specific research questions to structure the interview. Very often, where relatively
little is known about everyday experiences of the group under investigation, or
even how they manage to survive under difficult circumstances, informal story
telling has a better chance of providing a relatively accurate representation of the
core research issues.
PEER: A flexible approach
In the Netherlands, there has been quite some research into the lives of undocu‐
mented women, men and children, especially into their ill-health, which affects
their life chances in other respects, and into chronic mental and physical condi‐
tions that are not treated (for example, see Erkelens & Kouwenhoven, 2009;
Staring & Aarts, 2010). Where socio-economic inequalities in health status are
based on lack of or ineffective access to health care, this violates the rights to
health of all migrants as enshrined in Dutch legislation and international conven‐
tions. Invisibility of undocumented women and men in European societies can be
identified both as a cause of their vulnerable health status and as explaining the
lack of valid information about their specific health needs, as well as about obsta‐
cles they encounter in effectively accessing appropriate health care (see for exam‐
ple PICUM, 2007).
As the ‘new untouchables’, a phrase Nigel Harris already first used in 1995, the
outsider status of the undocumented is now sanctioned by law in the Nether‐
lands. There is thus a danger that their problems will receive less attention, since
even ‘supporting’ the undocumented is now being progressively illegalized itself,
and may well be criminalised as in France. As they are driven underground, the
need for more sensitive methods of collecting data becomes urgent. The PEER
ethnographic method is just one approach, and certainly not the only one. But
because it is based on working through established relations of trust, it is some‐
times able to produce very reliable and meaningful findings.
A specific example can illustrate both the usefulness, and some potential pitfalls
of the PEER approach. The study was set in South Wales in the UK, and carried
out by the Centre for Migration Policy Research of Swansea University, on behalf
of Oxfam UK. One of us was involved in recruiting peer ethnographic researchers
for this study, from among the network of refugees and of undocumented people
in South Wales. Those recruited needed to agree to attend PEER training in order
to become peer ethnographic researchers among their own communities. The
main theme, it was made clear, were the coping strategies and livelihoods of des‐
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Is the peer ethnographic approach a suitable method for researching lives of undocumented migrants?
titute people in South Wales. Those potentially interested in being involved heard
about the proposed research through various e-mail lists and through contacts.
Peer researchers were mainly recruited by word-of-mouth, with no formal inter‐
views or selection procedure. This is because the positions were unpaid, and the
criteria for volunteers were simply that they should be refugees or asylum seekers
with good social networks, be over 18 years old, and have good spoken and writ‐
ten English, as well as one other language if needed.
Following discussions and suggestions, 16 refugees and asylum seekers, 9 males
and 7 females, agreed to volunteer to be trained as PEER researchers and to con‐
duct research among a total of 45 undocumented people in South Wales (26 were
men and 19 were women) (Crawley, Jennings & Price, 2011: 14). The group was
composed mainly of refugees who themselves had either experienced destitution
at one time or had hosted destitute people in their homes. After training, some of
the peer ethnographic researchers conducted interviews, sometimes in their
mother tongue, and sometimes in English. An advantage of the PEER method was
that these researchers were recruited from across the different language com‐
munities represented among the undocumented in South Wales.
The team of peer researchers was made aware from the start that the work was
unpaid, and was conducted on a voluntary basis. Travel and other expenses would
be refunded however, since only this could make their full participation possible.
Many considered the net worth of the work worthwhile, however, and although
they were not paid, they felt they gained from the insights of doing research, and
became part of a wider research team, and perhaps gaining some recognition for
that fact. It would help build up their own skills base. Paid employment is not
allowed except for those with full refugee status or legal residence in the UK.
Once recruited, PEER researchers were invited to attend a three-day training
workshop at the Centre for Migration Policy Research of Swansea University.
During these three days they discussed their own understandings of the destitu‐
tion of undocumented migrants in UK, and started to define their own broad pri‐
orities for the discussions with undocumented people (Crawley, Jennings & Price,
2011: 13). These priorities were agreed with the wider research team, including
what the key and most critical issues were regarding destitution. The whole group
developed interviewing skills, including everything from how they would intro‐
duce themselves before starting interviews, to how to explain the aim of the
study overall, as well as the principles and practice of requesting informed con‐
sent from people being researched (Crawley et al., 2011: 13).
PEER researchers then (as described earlier in this article) had the task of identi‐
fying the individuals they wished to interview from within their own social net‐
works. With these they then conducted in-depth narrative interviews, contacting
between one and three people each. These interviews took place over the course
of three months, since times had to be found that were convenient for both
researchers and their interviewees. Most interviews lasted between one and two
hours, and peer researchers could talk with the same person more than once.
The South Wales study was somewhat different from previous PEER-based stud‐
ies, in that many of the South Wales undocumented interviewees wanted to be
able to discuss their own coping strategies in the first person. For the most part,
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Latefa Narriman Guemar & Helen Hintjens
they preferred to talk about their own personal experiences. This choice was
something the research team discussed at length before deciding that it should be
allowed for, but not required. In this case, therefore, the PEER approach was
modified in line with the preferences of the interviewees. Wanting to speak for
themselves, interviewees were perhaps concerned to ‘set the record straight’ on
ways they coped. All this was coordinated through the Centre for Migration Policy
Research, which also brought together the data drawn from the interviews
through meetings with the peer ethnographic researchers. No names were record‐
ed during interviews, and all names used in the final report were invented (Craw‐
ley et al., 2011: 15). Countries of origin, gender and the formal legal status of the
individuals were however recorded, as potentially useful, but quite general, iden‐
tifying data about the interviewees.
In this research project PEER researchers were asked to take extensive notes, and
most did so. Some preferred to rely on their memories of the stories, and found
taking notes made the discussion stilted and uneasy. They were all able to
recount, reading or recounting, some examples they had heard. When the con‐
tents of discussions were reported back to the research team during regular
debriefing sessions, peer ethnographic researchers were also encouraged to give
their own interpretation of the data. Each PEER researcher was debriefed at least
twice during the data collection period, and these debriefing notes were what con‐
stituted the final dataset on the basis of which the research findings were written
up. Preliminary findings were then discussed in greater depth after initial draft‐
ing of the report to ensure that the research team’s interpretation of the data was
consistent with the PEER researchers’ point of view.
The main findings of the study based on a sample of 45 undocumented migrants
in South Wales were that: (1) undocumented people were not always aware of
their basic entitlements, for example to health care; (2) they were often reluctant
to claim support even if they knew they were entitled to it, from the authorities,
just in case this meant they could be more easily detected for detention and
deportation; (3) local voluntary and support organisations were not trusted, even
if they were there to help destitute people, since there was ‘… a perceived lack of
independence of these organisations from the Home Office’ (Crawley et al., 2011:
5). Finally it was found that: (4) faith-based organisations were a significant form
of relatively trusted support for the undocumented.
It may be objected that this approach could not give a ‘representative’ picture,
given that peer ethnographic researchers were selecting those they interviewed
through their own trusted networks of social contacts. Yet this is partly to miss
the point of using the PEER approach, which does not claim scientific accuracy,
but seeks instead depth of understanding based on fuller disclosure of motives,
problems and strategies for coping, in this case. Being representative is thus not
the main consideration. The challenge instead is to find a way to get behind the
potentially misleading surface understanding of those whose lives are more or
less invisible to outsiders, and may therefore also be especially vulnerable to mis‐
representation. Price and Hawkins suggest that the emphasis of a PEER approach
is thus not on ‘fact-finding’, but: ‘… analysing contradiction and difference in the
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Is the peer ethnographic approach a suitable method for researching lives of undocumented migrants?
discourses of different people within a social network’ (Price & Hawkins, 2002:
Despite a relatively small sample and limitations from non-disclosure, the South
Wales study managed to bring some key priorities of a cross-section of undocu‐
mented people to the attention of policy-makers at the Welsh Assembly in Car‐
diff. The report’s findings were also widely reported outside Wales, including in
the UK national press. These findings challenged several misconceptions about
undocumented people’s lives, since relatively few were found to be engaged in
illegal employment. Rather than being perpetrators of crime, they were more
often its victims. The report highlighted things often ignored in other studies,
especially the role of gender and class power relations in increasing vulnerability.
Women’s sexual and labour exploitation seemed more apparent than men’s, and
more hidden from migrant support organisations. Undocumented people reiter‐
ated time and again their desire to work legally, and thus become less vulnerable
to various forms of coercive abuse. The reluctance of many undocumented people
to accept welfare and charity hand-outs was coupled with their constant aware‐
ness that since the UK government had forced them into destitution, they were
obliged to rely on others for help and shelter, and this made them all – especially
women – more vulnerable to further abuse. Based on this information, the report
was able to recommend that: ‘(p)ermission to work should be granted to those
people whose claim for asylum is refused, but who are unable to return home
through no fault of their own, and are complying with instructions to report to
the authorities. This policy response will remove the need for asylum seekers to
resort to illegal work and transactional and commercial sex work’ (Crawley et al.,
2011: 63). It is to be hoped that in the future, some similarly insightful policy
advice can be made by using the PEER approach to study undocumented people’s
lives in The Netherlands too.
Concluding thoughts
To understand what undocumented migrants undergo in their day to day lives,
researchers need to be able to draw a distinction between what ‘ought to be’ and
what ‘is’ their situation. Drawing a dynamic picture of undocumented people’s
coping and livelihood strategies requires an understanding, for example, of their
family and health situations as well. Inclusive and participatory research methods
will make no sense unless there is trust; participatory research works only when
peers are not afraid of the consequences if they talk. So, to be able to capture spe‐
cificities of the experiences and needs of undocumented people, from the per‐
spective of criminologists, health specialists, human rights advocates and others,
it is worth exploring the peer ethnographic approach in more depth. In this article
we explain some of the possible advantages of using this kind of methods. We
address how the method can help social researchers and criminologists working
on ‘hard to research’ populations like undocumented people living in Europe. This
article also considers the example of research conducted on the coping strategies
of undocumented people in South Wales, and reflects not only on the strengths,
Tijdschrift over Cultuur & Criminaliteit 2013 (3) 1 79
Latefa Narriman Guemar & Helen Hintjens
but also on some possible weaknesses of the PEER approach. In view of the
proposal in 2012 to criminalise around 130,000 undocumented estimated to be
living people in the Netherlands, the approach seems more relevant than ever
(Staring, 2012).
There are no doubts that qualitative data produced by PEER researchers can pro‐
vide more intense insights into lived experience of vulnerable communities, such
as the undocumented. Data collected in the South Wales study on coping with
destitution revealed a varied strategy elaborated by those who were faced with
the need to cope with being destitute or ‘illegal’. These strategies were affected by
factors such as gender, age, country of origin, personality traits and social net‐
works. The data showed that destitution is a dynamic process. Rather than pro‐
viding a static image of this vulnerable people, the study also showed that even
the most deprived individuals developed and adapted their own responses, show‐
ing both a sense of agency and the ability to formulate strategies in order to sur‐
vive. These included the most acceptable strategies but also the most illegal ones,
often combined. There is little doubt, however, that illegal activities reported in
interviews may not be revealed in full, especially since the peer ethnographic
researchers may feel they do not wish to report activities that are considered ille‐
gal, since they might lose the trustful relationship with those who only agreed to
be interviewed in the first place because of the existence of a trusting relation‐
ship. These activities might vary from the less serious, such as working in the
black market, for example (although the illegality of this matter might vary from
one state to another), to the most dangerous ones, like being involved in prostitu‐
tion, pimping or drug trafficking. There is also a risk that PEER researchers might
not be trained enough in term of self-reflexivity. In fact, PEER researchers were
themselves recruited because they have been through the UK asylum process, so
it is likely that they may have similar life strategies to the interviewees. To recall
such situations can be painful and cause bias when reporting data to the research
Although emotions which affect the researcher during a research process, can
bring an important insight into the topic under investigation (Maynard & Purvis,
1994; Ramazanoglu, 1992; Holland et al., 2000) a strong reflexivity during each
stage of the research should be clearly addressed by the researcher. In this case,
researchers are not well trained and are not professionals.
Yet, although the PEER method might appear an ideal tool for advocacy and
social/policy change to improve the life of the group under investigation, it
remains important to stress on the fact that data collected needs to be carefully
analysed. An additional/complementary method will eventually be used in order
to have a full and real picture of undocumented migrants.
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Tijdschrift over Cultuur & Criminaliteit 2013 (3) 1 81
... By integrating qualitative, ethnographic and trust-based interviewing, the PEER approach has been used as a methodological tool before in migration research, especially in relation to undocumented people (Crawley, Hennings and Price 2011;Hintjens and Guemar 2012). The PEER approach was specifically selected for this study because of its potential for generating valid and previously unknown data about various 'invisibilised' groups of people, in a liminal position. ...
... Researchers who pioneered the PEER approach hoped to get: '…beyond the surface' of sensitive issues, especially in relation to health (Price and Hawkins 2002). Most PEER studies have focused on liminal and stigmatised social groups, who may be vilified or ignored by the wider society, such as HIV/AIDS sufferers, Roma in Europe, sex workers, refugees and undocumented people as well as a range of other controversial topics London (Hawkins, Nsengiyuma & Williamson, 2005;Price and Hawkins 2002;Norman, Hemmings, Hussein & Otoo-Oyortey, 2009;Hintjens and Guemar 2012). For stigmatized or vulnerable groups, PEER methods based on trust can mitigate the likely overwhelming power imbalances between researchers and interviewees. ...
... All questions were designed as semi-structured and non-directive, and interviews lasted from 15 to 45 minutes. Compared with more usual structured interviews, the findings of the PEER interviews, described in more detail later in this article, were intended to dig deep for narratives and stories that might usually remain hidden to outsider social researchers (see Guemar and Hintjens, 2012: 2 for more on the PEER methodology). We thus hoped new insights and lessons might arise from the process of reflection. ...
... The entrepreneurs with a migration background from the former Yugoslavia, for instance, were interviewed by a researcher from the former Yugoslavia (one of the authors). Peer researchers are able to quickly build up rapport, minimizing the time-consuming process of building trusting relationships with interviewees (Narriman Guemar and Hintjens, 2013). A disadvantage of using peer researchers is the possible lack of reflexivity due to the interviewer's ethnic or highly educated lens (Amelina and Faist, 2012). ...
Full-text available
This article explores the underexamined role of personal enablers in migrant entrepreneurship. Drawing on timeline interviews, the study relays the importance of entrepreneur enablers in migrants’ business endeavours over time, ranging from coincidental and ephemeral encounters to the development of supportive communities. In the absence of accessible business support structures, the role of chance in migrants’ entrepreneurial trajectories increases, leading migrants to become self-employed, often against the grain of their own expectations or those of their inner circle of contacts or the wider society. The timeline interviews are a helpful method to capture how particular people, in conjunction with broader societal and smaller personal developments, influence entrepreneurial choices and progression over time. The study adds a dynamic and agentic perspective to migrant entrepreneurship literature underlining the importance of personal enablers to support migrant entrepreneurial developments over time.
... 3 See Briscoe et al. (2006). 4 See Guemar and Hintjens (2013). 5 See Biekart and Icaza (2011). ...
... 3 See Briscoe et al. (2006). 4 See Guemar and Hintjens (2013). 5 See Biekart and Icaza (2011). ...
... The PEER approach holds the potential to generate insightful narrative data into the daily lived realities as experienced by men by eliciting 'rich description' through story telling. PEER method has proved to be useful for research into sexual and reproductive health, particularly for issues that may be socially sensitive or stigmatised (Guemar and Hintjens 2013). The PEER process uses thirdperson narratives (asking 'what do other people think about' a behaviour or issue being researched) and, as such, does not require the personal disclosure of behaviour. ...
Full-text available
Notions of masculinity, which promote the role of men as providers and decision-makers, alongside men’s opposition to modern forms of contraception, have long been assumed to be a barrier to women’s use of contraception in Pakistan. There has been little in-depth exploration of varieties of masculinity and how these may influence men’s views of child-bearing or fertility preferences. This study used Participatory Ethnographic and Evaluation Research to explore married men’s (aged 18 to 45 years) perceptions of marriage, child-bearing and fertility control. A total of 31 men were recruited as researchers in two provinces (Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), who, in turn, each interviewed two male friends. Men overall supported a ‘smaller’ family size and use of contraceptive methods. Drivers of this preference included perceived economic constraints, the desire to invest in children’s education, and wider acceptability of contraceptive use. Limiting family size was associated with both the value of competent male providers taking care of their children, as well as being poor. Men wanted to have better access to information through a range of channels. Understanding the sociocultural contexts in which masculinities are constructed is essential before involving men in family planning programmes, so that gender inequalities are not reinforced.
Full-text available
Inaugural Lecture held on 2 July 2021 at the Radboud University, Nijmegen. Available online: (beginning in Dutch, actual lecture is in English)
In the past decade the Dutch state and the European Union have initiated a number of measures to make the strategies of irregular immigrants more visible in order to exclude, apprehend and expel them more effectively. These measures have limited the scope of irregular immigrants to manoeuvre in the legitimate institutions of society. As a consequence irregular migrants are pushed towards the fringes of legality and beyond. This article discusses three shifts in the residence strategies of irregular immigrants: (1) from formal to informal work, (2) from legitimate to criminal behaviour, and (3) from being identifiable to being unidentifiable. In reaction to these strategies, the state is countering again with new measures, especially with instruments to identify immigrants who do not reveal their true identity. There is a constant struggle in the field of migration, in which individual and collective actors involved respond to each other with different strategies.
In their first (hetero)sexual experience, young people are enticed into the gendered practices, meanings and power relations of heterosexuality. This paper draws on findings from two primarily qualitative studies of young people's sexual practices and understandings: the Women, Risk and AIDS Project and the Men, Risk and AIDS Project. The paper suggest that for young men, first (hetero)sex is an empowering moment through which agency and identity are confirmed. For young women the moment of first (hetero)sex is more complicated, and their ambivalent responses to it are primarily concerned with managing loss. By exploring and contrasting young people's accounts of their first sexual experiences and the meanings that virginity hold for them, the paper reveals the asymmetry of desire, agency and control within (hetero)sex. The paper concludes by considering the implication of these findings for practice.
In recent years, ethnographic research has challenged the notion within demography that fertility-related behaviour is the outcome of individualistic calculations of the costs and benefits of having children. Anthropology has further criticised the abstraction in demographic analysis of sexual behaviour and fertility decision-making from the socio-cultural and political context in which the individual or couple is located. Within demography itself, institutional and political-economic analyses have argued strongly that sexual and reproductive behaviour must be understood within locally specific social, cultural, economic and political contexts. Positivist and empiricist research methods, such as the sample survey and focus groups, which continue to dominate demographic inquiry and applied research into sexual and reproductive behaviour, have been shown to be limited in their ability to inform about the process of behaviour change and contexts within which different behaviours occur. The article introduces a new methodology for researching sexual and reproductive behaviour, called the peer ethnographic approach, which the authors have developed in an attempt to address some of the limitations of the methods which currently dominate research into sexual and reproductive behaviour. The peer ethnographic methodology is discussed in detail and the results of recent field-testing are reported, which show that, although the approach has limitations, it also has the potential to make a significant contribution to our understanding of sexual and reproductive behaviour.
Key Informant Monitoring within the Support to Safe Motherhood Programme: Guidance Notes. Part of HMGN Nepal National Safe Motherhood Programme (NNSMP) Report at: <
  • B Rolfe
Rolfe, B. (2006) Key Informant Monitoring within the Support to Safe Motherhood Programme: Guidance Notes. Part of HMGN Nepal National Safe Motherhood Programme (NNSMP). Report at: < Monitoring%20within%20the%20Support%20for%20SMP%20Guildelines%20Notes %20Ben%20Rolfe.pdf> (accessed 10 October 2012).
Why? What happens when people give reasons … and why
  • C Tilly
Tilly, C. (2006), Why? What happens when people give reasons … and why. Princeton-Oxford: Princeton University Press.
Jong en illegaal in Nederland Rotterdam: Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam. Den Haag: Boom Juridische uitgevers. Available at <
  • R J Staring
  • Aarts
Staring, R. & J. Aarts (2010), Jong en illegaal in Nederland. Rotterdam: Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam. Den Haag: Boom Juridische uitgevers. Available at < 1631b-volledige-tekst_tcm44-298978.pdf> (accessed 7 May 2012).
Moderne slavernij of gewoon werk? (oratie Rotterdam). Den Haag: Boom Juridische uitgevers
  • R Staring
Staring, R. (2012), Moderne slavernij of gewoon werk? (oratie Rotterdam). Den Haag: Boom Juridische uitgevers.
Redocumented, at: <www.redocumented
  • J A Erkelens
  • Kouwenhoven
Erkelens, J. & A. Kouwenhoven (2009), Redocumented, at: < content/uploads/2010/04/Redocumented_issue01.pdf> (accessed 8 March 2012).