Interviewing families in Wales: The reality of fieldwork


By Elen Jones and Catt Turney

Investigating young people’s attitudes, behaviour and influences relating to substance use is just one of the areas being investigated by DECIPHer. SFP 10-14 (UK), the Strengthening Families Programme 10-14 (UK), is a seven-week course designed to help young people handle peer pressure, deal with stress, and develop goals. It is adapted from a programme developed in the USA, which has been found to delay and reduce substance use in young people.

Will SFP 10-14 work in Wales?

Project SFP Cymru is a five-year study which aims to identify whether the programme has similar positive outcomes in a Welsh context. The project began in 2009 and is being carried out by DECIPHer in partnership with the South East Wales Trials Unit, Swansea University and Cardiff University School of Social Sciences, funded by the National Prevention Research Initiative. Project SFP Cymru is a randomised controlled trial, meaning every family who signed up to take part in the project was allocated randomly to one of two groups, one of which received SFP 10-14 (UK).

There are over 700 families involved in the project, spread across seven Welsh counties. They have taken part in interviews at the start of the study, and nine and 15 months after it began. There are three fieldworkers (researchers who go outside the office or lab to collect data) currently conducting the end-of-trial interviews with these families, each covering a different area of Wales.

Families take part in SFP 10-14 (UK) for a whole host of different reasons. Some parents are hoping to deal with a very specific problem they’re having with their child’s behaviour, but it’s not just about addressing existing issues. Often, involvement with the programme is presented as a positive choice – ‘strengthening’ rather than ‘fixing’ –  aimed at helping the families improve their communication, listen to each other more, and generally make the teenage experience better for everyone involved.                                

                                    Houses in Rhondda Valley, one of the areas involved in Project SFP Cymru

Interviewing families

The end-of-trial interviews cover all sorts of topics, from family life and relationships to substance use and health. We also take saliva samples from the young people, which we test for cotinine, the chemical found in tobacco smoke. Having done one myself before I (Elen) started collecting them from the young people, I can say with authority that it’s less CSI and more like having dental swabs in your mouth – not exactly unpleasant, but not usually the young people’s favourite part of the project!

It can feel a bit strange at first to be in someone’s house in a professional context, but I’d worked in the past doing outreach work for a refuge so got used to it again quite quickly. Over time, I’ve got more confident and better at anticipating what’s coming next – although families never stop saying new things! It’s definitely important to keep an open mind, and always prepare to be surprised.

There’s so much variation between families – not just in size and setup, but in how they communicate with each other and with you – that every interview is different, and it never stops being interesting to meet and talk to the family on their turf.

“It’s not just about addressing existing issues…[but making] the teenage experience better for everyone involved”

Professional but human

Each family gets asked the same questions, but that doesn’t mean the fieldworker can just sit back and reel them off; the way they’re asked can have a huge amount of influence. I think the key is consistency – in how you ask the questions, but also in how willing and able the family are to answer them. If a participant has had a long day and isn’t really in the mood to talk, being consistent might mean making a particular effort to make sure they’re relaxed and ready to do the interview.

As a fieldworker, you always have to make sure you’ve got your ‘work head’ on. Some of the questions are quite personal, so you have to remember that these are real people’s lives you’re engaging with. At the same time, though, it’s not just a conversation, and you have to resist any temptation to ask for further information about something you’re discussing in an interview. It can be a delicate balance between being professional and still remaining human. It’s those little things –  giving them time to think and to ask questions about the project, and just generally being pleasant – that can make all the difference.

Elen Jones is a fieldworker on Project SFP Cymru. Catt Turney (@CattTurney) is Research and Knowledge Exchange Assistant at DECIPHer.

More information about DECIPHer’s work on Project SFP Cymru can be found here.

Project SFP Cymru is funded by the National Prevention Research Initiative (£2.1M), and includes the cost of the delivering the programme in three local areas. The Welsh Assembly Government is funding the remaining cost of delivering the programme. A full list of NPRI funding partners can be found here.

Image of Rhondda Valley – source: Ian Britton,

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