'Not all harm faced is physical'

August 3, 2007

Mick Bloor has had his fair share of dangerous encounters. Currently professorial research fellow at the Centre for Drug Misuse Research at Glasgow University, he studied male prostitution on Glasgow's streets as a fieldworker in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. In one instance, he was threatened with an upturned chair in a bar. In a previous post in 2002, as a lead grantholder on a study of seafarer health and safety in Russia, a harbourmaster he was working with to arrange researchers' access to ships was murdered during negotiations. As the chair of the inquiry into researchers at risk, he calls here for better protection from physical and mental threats for all social scientists.

Ken Pryce was the author of a noted sociological study of West Indian life in Bristol, but he is better known today as an academic victim of violence.

He disappeared while researching criminality in Jamaica, and his body was later found washed up on a Caribbean beach. Deaths to social researchers have thankfully been few, but not all harm is physical.

Qualitative research demands an immersive understanding of individuals' lives and social settings and uses research methods that draw researchers into close relationships with their research subjects. Consequently researchers can suffer emotional harm, and the majority of the reports from researchers posted onto our inquiry's website were concerned with emotional, not physical, harm.

The development of codes of research ethics and the oversight of social research by ethics committees has, very properly, focused attention on the need to ensure that research participants are not hurt or disadvantaged by the research process, or by the research results.

But with this focus on the protection of the participant, we are in danger of losing sight of the need to protect the researcher. In an interview study of young people who had experienced serious sexual abuse, the young people received counselling, but the interviewers did not.

By and large, the inquiry found that universities did make formal provision for addressing researcher safety. They required project risk assessments, occupational health and safety specialists were available to give advice, and free confidential counselling services were available to repair harm.

But these services were not always used.

In contrast, replies to inquiries to a media organisation about risks to journalists and an international aid agency about risks to fieldworkers revealed that both organisations had undergone substantial changes in recent years in the way in which such risks are handled.

Both organisations had mandatory risk assessments, security training for senior as well as junior staff, and compulsory debriefings.

Most important, both organisations stressed the need for line managers to actively manage risks.

In the universities, those most at risk are junior contract researchers and PhD students. Heads of departments rightly delegate responsibility for their welfare to principal investigators or PhD supervisors, but they are not always meeting their responsibilities to junior staff.

Proper risk assessments are not always conducted, the cost of safety procedures are not always included in research proposals, fieldworkers are not always told about practical safety or about free counselling services.

Ironically, much of the specialist expertise on which media and aid organisations depend to manage risks to their staff is drawn from the universities. But some staff in universities have failed to keep pace: a case of cultural lag.

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