Research risks not addressed

August 3, 2007

Fieldwork brings a range of dangers, but targeted support for academics is patchy. Rebecca Attwood reports

"On one occasion I found myself with a gun held to my head," said social anthropologist Jeremy Keenan.

Professor Keenan, an expert on the Sahara and the War on Terror, has worked in conflict zones around the world, where the risk of violence is high and where it is often impossible to get insurance.

Conducting research on poverty in South Africa, he drove into Alexandra township after dark and was "suddenly pulled over by a guy who shoved a pistol through the window into my face. He claimed to be a policeman and said that I shouldn't be there. Somehow I managed to keep talking to him, trying to humour him, for what seemed like ages, with the pistol in my ear, before finally persuading him to take me to a police station and charge me." Professor Keenan was released without charge.

It is not difficult to think of situations where researchers can find themselves at risk of physical violence or emotional risk.

While it is still relatively rare for academics to be harmed, a new report, Inquiry into the Risk to Well-Being of Researchers in Qualitative Research, catalogues instances of assault, murder and psychological trauma as a result of fieldwork.

It concludes that universities have "failed to keep pace" with improvements in risk management now found in comparable organisations such as aid agencies.

Although formal structures to protect researchers - such as insurance policies, requirements for risk assessments, ethical oversight and counselling facilities -are in place, these are underused. "Systems are frequently not operating effectively to protect qualitative social researchers," according to the report.

The authors found a lack of understanding in departments when it came to insurance and planning and costing for researcher safety. They also cited many examples of recent social research projects being embarked upon without proper risk assessments.

Emotional damage was the most widespread, with "multiple instances of emotional harm" to female researchers reported. This ranged from the difficulties of listening to first-hand accounts of distressing events to fieldwork generating feelings of anxiety and isolation.

Geraldine Lee-Treweek, principal lecturer in applied social sciences at Manchester Metropolitan University, said that when she tried to highlight the dangers faced by qualitative researchers in the book Danger in the Field, she was accused of raising "wishy-washy" issues. However, she believes these are subjects that should be taken seriously.

She said academic qualitative research was often based on the idea of the researcher becoming "embedded" in a new environment, and that this was often seen as a challenge to be met by the researcher alone.

"If you have doubts about this process, you are perceived as somehow not up to the job. Yet some of the work we do is with participants who may represent a threat to us physically or emotionally.

"If you complain about problems in the field this could lead to you being seen as weak and unable to cope."

Dr Lee-Treweek is currently working on perceptions of migration. She said: "Many of the migrant people we are interviewing are experiencing real physical threats, and some of the women have been sexually assaulted. The emotional balancing act you have to undertake (while talking to them) is extremely difficult.

"It also involves interviewing people late at night because often that is the only time they are not at work. You have to ensure that researchers are properly prepped and that there are safety measures in place, such as working in pairs."

The system of research funding does not encourage researchers to "cost in" safety, she said.

"I think there is a temptation with research bids to cut corners, particularly on safety because it can involve extra costs, and when researchers are in competition they do not want to present a bid that looks dreadfully expensive and over the top."

Professor Keenan agreed that funding is an issue.

"Research in conflict zones is not given as much funding as it should be - and when you are conducting research on a shoestring budget that increases the risks," he said.

The research was conducted as part of the "Qualiti" project (Qualitative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: Innovation, Integration and Impact) at Cardiff University.

Although the report demanded better procedures to protect academics, it also identified concerns that too much focus on risk could damage research.

The report says: "In some instances researchers felt as though their personal safety had been compromised by a poor understanding of the research site by superiors and in other instances researchers reported that research had been stifled by unrealistic demands for the management of risks that were not present."

Ray Lee, professor of social research methods at Royal Holloway, University of London, has written about the problems and issues surrounding research on "sensitive" topics and the difficulties involved in research in settings that pose physical dangers.

He said: "I've always felt that no piece of research is worth getting hurt for, but on the other hand we have a responsibility as researchers to study difficult, sensitive and violent topics because these are often crucial issues."

And Professor Lee believes it is important not to have a "heroic" view of research. "In many cases, for example when I worked in Northern Ireland, the dangers you face when conducting research are faced by others on a daily basis," he said.


Examples of the fieldwork dangers from the report

* A male researcher using a pub frequented by drug dealers as a fieldwork site was threatened after people became suspicious of his claims to be a researcher, although his work was unrelated to drug-dealing.

* Researchers described feeling "overcome" at having to keep confidential the harrowing stories of refugees' experiences or distress at interviewing young people who had experienced serious sexual abuse.

* A female researcher who conducted interviews with imprisoned sex offenders was left feeling frightened after the release of an interviewee who had made sexual remarks to her, after a mistake by the prison allowed him to learn her whereabouts.

* A female anthropologist working in a Latin American male prison received occasional compliments and declarations of love from the prisoners, which she found difficult to handle.

* One researcher felt "leakage" of feelings about fieldwork experiences of male violence into the researcher's private life, leading to difficult changes in the relationship with the researcher's partner.

* Feelings of loneliness and alienation after finishing immersive fieldwork to return to academic life left one researcher unable to complete their PhD.

* A fieldworker who went to the Dominican Republic to study music and migration found herself working against a backdrop of violence, which saw 15 murders during the seven-month project.

Staying safe: Seven key steps

The report's recommendations:

1. Postgraduate research methods courses should include research safety in their curricula.

2. The Economic and Social Research Council should consider whether provision of safety training in postgraduate research methods curricula should be a factor in determining whether those methods receive ESRC recognition.

3. University in-service training courses for PhD supervisors and principal investigators should cover researcher safety.

4. All university departments should be subject to periodic health and safety audits, which would include examination of provision for researcher safety.

5. All funders should require principal investigators to comply with the Social Research Association (or similar) guidelines.

6. All funders should formally invite referees to comment on researcher safety issues, where salient, as part of their assessments of grant applicants' research methods.

7. All university ethics committees should accept formal responsibility for oversight of provision for postgraduate student safety, with safety being addressed in the context of a specific question on the application form and of the guidance on form completion.

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