The exclusion from health research of groups most affected by poor health is an issue not only of poor science, but also of ethics and social justice. Even if exclusion is inadvertent and unplanned, policy makers will be uninformed by the data and experiences of these groups. The effect on the allocation of resources is likely to be an exacerbation of health inequalities.
We subject to critical analysis the notion that certain groups, by virtue of sharing a particular identity, are inaccessible to researchers - a phenomenon often problematically referred to as 'hard to reach'. We use the term 'seldom heard' to move the emphasis from a perceived innate characteristic of these groups to a consideration of the methods we choose as researchers. Drawing on a study exploring the intersections of faith, culture, health and food, we describe a process of recruitment, data collection and analysis in which we sought to overcome barriers to participation. As we were interested in the voices of South Asian women, many of whom are largely invisible in public life, we adopted an approach to data collection which was culturally in tune with the women's lives and values. A collaborative activity mirroring food preparation provided a focus for talk and created an environment conducive to data collection. We discuss the importance of what we term 'shoe leather research' which involves visiting the local area, meeting potential gatekeepers, and attending public events in order to develop our profile as researchers in the community. We examine issues of ethics, data quality, management and analysis which were raised by our choice of method.
In order to work towards a more theoretical understanding of how material, social and cultural factors are connected and influence each other in ways that have effects on health, researchers must attend to the quality of the data they collect to generate finely grained and contextually relevant findings. This in turn will inform the design of culturally sensitive health care services. To achieve this, researchers need to consider methods of recruitment; the makeup of the research team; issues of gender, faith and culture; and data quality, management and analysis.