All in the name of research

Thrill-seekers or pioneers? Scholars operating close to legal boundaries attract both labels

June 12, 2014

Source: Bradley Garrett

Research at the edge: ‘fieldwork can take you over different sorts of boundaries,’ says Bradley Garrett

“Security will be extremely tight, as the threat assessment for this controversial event is high,” the conference invitation read. “Various overlapping law-enforcement entities employ facial and gait-recognition software via the CCTV cameras in use throughout the St Hilda’s [College, Oxford] facilities,” it warned.

Arriving at the college for the event, participants had to pass through a series of doors marked “Keep Out!” and “No Trespassing!” to reach the conference room, where they were scanned with metal detectors by one of the organisers.

But the fact that the detectors appeared to be made of foam – and that the tea and coffee table was ringed with homemade police tape – gave the game away that the warnings might not have been serious.

The event was on “trespassing in fieldwork”, a subject made especially pertinent by the experiences of Bradley Garrett, a researcher at the University of Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment, who was first to speak at the symposium.

As he detailed in these pages last week, Dr Garrett was arrested in 2012 and charged, alongside eight others, with conspiracy to commit criminal damage for joining a group of “place-hackers” – who explore the parts of cities that are usually off-limits, such as scaling the Shard and exploring disused London Underground stations – as part of his research.

All but two of the defendants had the conspiracy charges against them dropped after proceedings at Blackfriars Crown Court started in April. Dr Garrett and one other co-defendant were released at the end of May with a conditional discharge for criminal damage – he later labelled the prosecution an “attack on intellectual freedom”.

The Oxford event sought to consider how free anthropologists, ethnographers and other academics are to conduct fieldwork that might be considered as straying close to legal boundaries.

One of the conference organisers, Peter Wynn Kirby, a senior visiting research associate at the School of Geography and the Environment, explained that even the idea of holding the symposium had caused concern among senior managers in the school, who feared it could become a workshop on how to trespass.

Delegates heard from David Adams, a lecturer in planning at Birmingham City University, and Michael Hardman, a lecturer in geography at the University of Salford, who had been investigating “guerrilla gardening” – where green-fingered members of the public illicitly brighten up neglected patches of earth in urban environments. Dr Hardman explained how he had gone out guerrilla gardening with a group who, unusually, planted during the day rather than under the cover of darkness, meaning that he felt “quite exposed”, planting near a “very busy” area of the (deliberately unnamed) city.

The gardeners “loved the thrill of being out there, hearing the sirens coming past, ducking behind the barriers” and enjoying the feeling of being “naughty”, he said.

He also had a particularly unusual ethical dilemma: at the time, he was a police special constable. “I held a warrant card, and I could arrest people,” he explained. But he nonetheless told the gardeners of his police credentials and was still able to join them in their technically illegal escapades.

Going underground

Studying the heavily mined landscape of the southern Peak District, George Jaramillo, a PhD student in the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences, found himself drawn to locals’ tales of trespass. They recounted delving into abandoned mines and swimming in the azure pools that formed in the area’s abandoned limestone quarries.

He tried to take a dip in the pools himself, but found them fenced off, and reportedly with pH levels that can cause burns to the skin.

But Mr Jaramillo did manage to explore some of Derbyshire’s estimated 100,000 abandoned lead mines with a group of potholers, which was “quite exciting, and it felt as if you were part of the mine itself”. This raises the question: do academics who study off-limits behaviour do so because it allows them to engage in activities that are, to put it bluntly, fun? And does it actually matter if this is part of the researcher’s motive?

“I was going to want to go underground because I wanted to know what the lives of miners were like,” said Mr Jaramillo. “It wasn’t until I started collecting the [local] stories [of trespass] that more of this subversive aspect of it came to the surface.” In other words, “it became fun”, he said.

“We might have gone into a project with one idea in mind,” said Dr Garrett. “But then it all sort of unfolds in the field.” If a researcher enjoys their fieldwork, he said, it can take them in new directions and this “might take you over different sorts of boundaries…you get good research out of that, and that’s the most important thing”.

Trespass can also mean straying over a line into someone’s private space, and the internet throws up new ethical quandaries. The conference heard from a PhD candidate who was looking into whether Facebook news feeds were a public or private space when trying to understand how people deal informally with conflict.

Those on the social networking site would even upload “incriminating footage” or “confessions” to their profiles. But, partly because of Facebook’s rather lax default privacy settings, the researcher – who preferred not to be named – concluded that a Facebook news feed could be as public a domain as a town square.

Vincent Nijman, a researcher at Oxford Brookes University, recounted his visit to the warlord-run city of Mong La, a largely Chinese enclave on Burma’s north-eastern border, to reveal a thriving, grisly trade in (dead or alive) protected species. There he managed to document and photograph, among other things, a farm, which was supposed to have been shut down, that milked about 80 caged bears for their bile.

The aim of this work is to expose and help stop the trade, he explained. But, even though he was a foreign interloper photographing an illegal activity, he said that he was allowed to trespass in Mong La’s animal market because locals assumed that, as a Westerner near Thailand, he “must be there for the prostitutes”.

Because of the danger of having his cover blown, Professor Nijman cannot be photographed or do television interviews to publicise his findings.

In perhaps an even more extreme example of the potential perils of trespassing, the conference also heard of one researcher who had requested preparation to make sure that they did not become brainwashed while living with a cult.

If there was a theme that grew out of the symposium, it was that almost all fieldwork is trespass, be it legal, cultural or social. Much of it is about going into a society without knowing the codes, said Dr Kirby. “In a sense, the whole practice of ethnography is trespassing.”

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