My First International Data Collection Trip

When I agreed to help my mentor with a data collection trip to Mexico, I learned what really went into international data collection.

With international data collection, there are different obstacles to overcome compared to research conducted in an American college campus. When my mentor asked me if I wanted to help her collect data in Mexico regarding adolescents and sexual behaviors, I agreed. I was unprepared for how much work really went into the process or how much time I was truly investing— almost three years. While I would have been satisfied with just an interesting point on my CV, I learned about the pressure to be right the first time, passive consent, and being the recipient of romantic attention (yes, really).  

Previously, I had only conducted experimental research in the US—research conducted in a lab, on a computer, using American college students as my participants. If I, or my committee, wanted to add something to the protocol we edited the IRB proposal and simply waited for the following semester of introductory psychology for more participants. With this survey, though, we couldn’t do that. It’s not like we could hop on a plane and collect data whenever we wanted to. The Mexico survey went through countless revisions and numerous pilots in the United States. It was shelved for months just so it could be reviewed again with fresh eyes. We had to be sure we wouldn’t end up in Mexico and realize that part of the survey was useless due to poor validity, reliability issues, or inaccurate translations. The pressure to be perfect was palpable and tensions only increased as our departure date neared.

Once we were committed to the survey, I began to learn about IRB protocol and consent in Mexico. In general, Mexico does not require parental permission as long as the school principal approves the study. In the end, our institutional IRB allowed us to use passive consent, in which we sent out a letter to the parents detailing the study. The parents had to sign and return the form only when they did not want their student to participate. This concept seemed so, well, foreign to me. It felt like we were breaking the rules somehow, like we were going against ethical consent guidelines despite having IRB approval. I was used to American college students carefully (or not so carefully) reading their consent form and being able to sign for themselves. Over the years, I had been told about adolescent consent/assent in American populations but never specifically about passive consent. This was unfamiliar information that I had to become familiar with while on the job.

While managing data collection in a foreign country for the first time, I was dealing with a challenge that I never expected to have to contend with: getting flirted with. In Latino culture, a prominent cultural value, particularly among males, is called machismo, or a sense of male sexual dominance. As a little bit of background about me, I am a 25-year-old White female with light brown hair and blue eyes. These traits happen to be exceptionally appreciated in Mexico (see research on colorism here, here, and here). While distributing surveys, a teacher taught his class to say “Hello, beautiful lady” in English. Middle school boys would line up so they could say “Hola” to me. One teenage boy went so far as to refuse to sit down until he had found a suitable place for me to sit (although this delves into caballerismo, or a need to be chivalrous. Women and girls of all ages told me I was lucky to receive the attention of so many strangers. If I had been in the States, protocol is in place to address such behavior, especially in professional settings. However, as a guest in someone else’s school and country, I had to find the line between respecting cultural divides and respecting my personal boundaries. As it turns out, the buddy system is a universal code for “please do not flirt with me”. An undergraduate traveled with us and her and I spent a significant amount of time together. She is older than I am and a Latina, and would tell me when I should stand next to her or hold onto her arm.

I learned several things from my first international data collection experience, some more unexpected than others. Most importantly, though, I learned that it is a long and difficult process. One can’t be casually interested in international data collection. In my case alone, it was a three-year journey. But it was exceptionally rewarding to finally have those students hand in the surveys we worked so hard to obtain. No matter what had previously happened, we had real data that represented real adolescents.

Image by Chinnapong/AdobeStock

Jenna L. McPherson received her M.A. in Psychology from the University of North Carolina Wilmington in Spring 2017. She is currently working with Dr. Graciela Espinosa-Hernández as she prepares to apply for Ph.D. programs in the fall. Her research interests include romantic relationship initiation.