Research in the danger zone: should academics do it?

Interviewing a Mafia researcher made John Elmes consider how scholars should study volatile groups

March 1, 2017
Source: Samuel Aranda/Panos

Since the premise of our Outer Limits series is to provide stories of research "outside the comfort zone", it’s no surprise that featured academics routinely find themselves in highly dangerous situations.

But there’s a degree of difference between the dangers of doing research next to an active volcano, say, and researching criminal underworlds. With the latter, people can retaliate after you’ve finished your studies.

That was the first question I put to Felia Allum, a University of Bath academic and ethnographer of the Mafia, when I interviewed her about her research into the Neapolitan Camorra. Did she ever feel worried there might be repercussions to researching an outfit with a history of brutal violence?

Dr Allum conceded at once stage that she had “concerns” when interviewing the cousin of an alleged former head of a noted Camorra clan, and asked herself whether she was getting in too deep.

In the main, however, she said that the amount of time that elapsed between her interviewees’ crimes and when she spoke to them meant they had often “moved on” from their past and were therefore unlikely to target her.

Still, I remember feeling a palpable quickening of my heart when the feature was published, so what must an academic feel? It does raise a question about how much scholars put themselves in the firing line (so to speak) for ethnographic work into volatile groups, and how much their universities allow them to do so.

Dr Allum said that discussing research into criminal gangs did require frank discussions with Bath about “ethics” and “risk assessment”. She draws comfort from the fact her work often looks back at historic cases, first and foremost. But also, her approach is careful. She wouldn’tnecessarily go around advertising exactly what I’m looking at and how I’m looking at it”.

It was this line of conversation that reminded me of the tragedy of Giulio Regeni, the University of Cambridge PhD student who was murdered in early 2016 while carrying out doctoral research in Egypt. Some suspect that the Egyptian authorities were involved – something that they have denied. And more than a year on, there is still no answer as to who killed him and why.

In our conversation, Dr Allum noted that the case could have ramifications on her, and others’, future research into volatile groups.

Should academics continue to do research on issues that may anger the subjects? Absolutely. As Dr Allum pointed out, academic research on the Mafia is “crucial” to furthering the campaign of bringing down organised crime. But how one goes about it is up for discussion.

It is important to point out Regeni, as his friends and colleagues noted, was extremely careful with how he conducted his research. However, his death raised questions for those conducting controversial fieldwork, and Dr Allum thinks projects looking into potentially incendiary groups require caution.

“One has to be careful, especially when it comes back to the notion of understanding and knowing what you’re looking at,” she said. “[There is an] ethical consideration and risk assessment [of the areas] I want to engage in.

“One of the caveats is that I’m looking at 2000 to 2015, and I take my time. So by the time I’ve written it up, maybe we’re in 2020 and anybody who is interested or I’m interested in will have moved on.”

john.elmes@tesglobal.com

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

PhD Scholar in Medicine

University Of Queensland

Manager, Research Systems and Performance

Auckland University Of Technology

Lecturer in Aboriginal Allied Health

University Of South Australia

Lecturer, School of Nursing & Midwifery

Western Sydney University

College General Manager, SHE

La Trobe University
See all jobs

Most Commented

women leapfrog. Vintage

Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O’Gorman offer advice on climbing the career ladder

Woman pulling blind down over an eye
Liz Morrish reflects on why she chose to tackle the failings of the neoliberal academy from the outside
White cliffs of Dover

From Australia to Singapore, David Matthews and John Elmes weigh the pros and cons of likely destinations

Mitch Blunt illustration (23 March 2017)

Without more conservative perspectives in the academy, lawmakers will increasingly ignore and potentially defund social science, says Musa al-Gharbi

Michael Parkin illustration (9 March 2017)

Cramming study into the shortest possible time will impoverish the student experience and drive an even greater wedge between research-enabled permanent staff and the growing underclass of flexible teaching staff, says Tom Cutterham