safety and research


Every now and then you read papers* by someone who has experienced violence during their fieldwork. Karen Ross, for instance, wrote about sexual violence in the field. She described the ways in which protecting herself from harassment and assault meant she had to adopt defensive behaviours that ran counter to the usual advice in research methods books – reduce distance to gain trust. For her, reducing distance did not produce trust, rather serious risks.

Imogen Clark and Andrea Grant discuss the need to start an uncomfortable conversation about the risks arising from researching in a new gender and sexual economy in which different understandings of reciprocity and exchange may be at play. Clark and Grant are very clear that the risks and violence they discuss happens everywhere. At home, and abroad. And violent attacks, in particular, are most likely to be carried out by acquaintances, not strangers. Clark and Grant discuss the guilt that a researcher can feel for putting themselves in a situation where she is assaulted.  This guilt was often accompanied by an acute sense of failure and even despair. How would she ever gather the data she needed to complete her thesis? Should she continue speaking to and meeting with potential (or, indeed, confirmed) assailants?

Clark and Grant are concerned that the potential for violence – physical, verbal or emotional – directed at researchers is rarely discussed in research training or in supervision. That’s my concern too.

But I’m also concerned about the effects of engaging with terrible situations.

It is not at all uncommon for researchers in the humanities and social sciences to want to research the experiences of survivors. Survivors of tragic one-off events or genocidal policies or war, or ongoing hostile policy agendas or hate-filled public behaviours. Or perhaps research into the toxic effects of everyday aggressions. You don’t have to look very far to see everyday aggressions, both macro and micro. Researchers who do this kind of work are usually driven by concerns for justice. Perhaps they have some experience of the topic of their research. But regardless of their own position, they are likely to encounter situations where they might experience strong emotional responses to the stories they hear and the events and contexts they come to understand.

As Ruth Behar says, it’s important that we don’t pretend that we don’t feel or care. But those emotions can end up causing us distress, anxiety and even trauma if we don’t look after ourselves. It’s important that researchers/we stay healthy physically and mentally. That’s about self-care.  That is enough on its own. But we also want to stay safe and healthy because we owe it to the survivors we’ve worked with to stay well so we can do their stories justice.

I suspect that fieldwork-related risk, safety, stress, anxiety and trauma are not well discussed in a lot of methods education. I’ve looked at the training courses I know about and not had a lot of joy in answering two basic questions – Where and how much are the risks of violence, trauma and stress arising from research discussed? (answer I haven’t a clue) Have I ever encountered this in researcher or supervisor training? (answer no)

Of course, fieldwork risks and post-fieldwork stress, anxiety and trauma are discussed in some locations and some texts (see for instance Helen Kara’s chapter on researcher well-being in her book Research Ethics in the Real World). And researcher safety and well-being is an increasingly important topic of conversation in disciplines like anthropology. But I reckon the university-wide conversation is patchy at best. It sits in tick-box in ethics forms or in anxious closed-door conversations in supervision.

The irony is that within universities we have disciplines which deal with risk, violence, stress and trauma. Professionals such as psychologists, social workers, counsellors – all of whom are educated in universities by our colleagues – have well-developed procedures for support and ongoing supervision to manage potentially tricky and damaging work-produced feelings and/or conditions. Why aren’t we routinely engaging these colleagues in research training?

It seems to me that there’s a much overdue public conversation about research-related safety, risks and trauma – but also a formal recognition that we actually have the resources available to us to take charge of structurally-produced consequences for researchers. If we have the wherewithal to make sensible institutional provisions to anticipate and deal with research-associated violence, risk, stress and trauma, why don’t we?

 And via Dr Kay Guccione: Check out the resources from Sheffield about emotionally demanding research

*See for instance a paper by Sinah Theres Kloß (paywalled), blog posts  here and here and here.

Photo by Lukas Juhas on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, ethics, ethics of care, trauma and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to safety and research

  1. Here’s a link to a very useful open access book published by Palgrave, based on a multi-year multi-site research project overseen by Prof. Marlies Glasius (Uni of Amsterdam), on research, ethics & risk in the authoritarian field: Info from the blurp: “without reducing the conundrums of authoritarian field research to a simple how-to guide, the book systematically reflects and reports on the authors’ combined experiences in (i) getting access to the field, (ii) assessing risk, (iii) navigating ‘red lines’, (iv) building relations with local collaborators and respondents, (v) handling the psychological pressures on field researchers, and (vi) balancing transparency and prudence in publishing research.” NB: the researchers also created a comic book series based on their experiences, available at (incl chapters on experiencing stress, building relations in the field, adapting to changing red lines, etc.)


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