Safety and risk in the field
There are a variety of dangers which can face people engaged in social research. Researchers have an obligation to themselves, to co-workers and to researchers under their direction to maintain awareness of potential dangers and to take steps to diminish these.
The main dimensions of risk to social researchers are:
- danger of physical intimidation, or actual bodily harm; and also the psychological trauma which could result from these;
- emotional distress in response to participants’ disclosures;
- being put in compromising situations, such that they risk being accused of misconduct;
- arousal of suspicion and antagonism from authorities.
Clearly there are arenas in which such dangers are unlikely to arise. Equally there are arenas in which awareness of danger is crucial. For instance, physical danger could be a factor in researching criminal fraternities, addicts or emotionally disturbed people; and emotional distress may be a factor when working with terminally ill people or victims of abuse.
Dangers may be exacerbated when conducting research in unfamiliar cultures or settings. Awareness of potential dangers from suspicious or antagonistic authorities is especially relevant when working in contexts when one is both an insider and outsider (see The Global Context).
In general, matters of culture, class, race and gender and varied contexts, should be seen as potentially relevant to the safety of researchers. Female researchers, especially when working alone, may be more vulnerable their male counterparts, though men researching lone women may also place themselves in a vulnerable position. It should also be noted that some cultures may be hostile towards women in the ‘independent, worldly role’ of researcher.
Explicit discussion of risks and identification of appropriate countermeasures is likely to be beneficial in minimising anxiety and thereby freeing the researcher to concentrate on the work. Exercising basic common sense is paramount and each situation should be evaluated separately. Situations can change rapidly in the field; therefore it can be important to keep safety under review, especially where situations have already been identified as dangerous. It should be recognized that in some research scenarios physical dangers may come from people connected with those being researched (e.g. husbands of abuse wives, or associates of criminals), rather than from the research participants themselves.
General health and safety issues associated with field research activities should also be considered. Issues could include such things as road accidents, vulnerability to criminal activity (not directly associated with the research) and exposure to infectious diseases.
In evaluating the potential dangers of a project, it may be necessary to consider likely impacts on non-field workers, such as transcribers or others engaging with the data.
(1) The Social Research Association (SRA) provides a comprehensive Code of Practice for the Safety of Social Researchers, which addresses the questions raised above amongst others. The areas covered by the SRA code are listed below.
The SRA website’s researcher safety page is at:
or download the full ‘Safety Code of Practice’ document directly at:
(2) A Protocol for Researcher Safety (Paterson, B. D. Gregory & S. Thorne, 1999. Qualitative Health Research, 9, 2, 259-269) discusses general guidelines for the development of a protocol to address the issue of researcher safety in the field.
(3) Several professions, such as social work and teaching, have developed, or are developing codes of practice for their staff. The Suzie Lamplugh Trust, for example, publishes a guide for employees. (‘Personal Safety at Work’ – various booklets available through www.suzylamplugh.org).
In situations where face to face interviews might be dangerous, the following points could be considered:
- Are there viable alternatives to in-person meetings – e.g. telephone interviews?
- Is it necessary to interview the participants on their own ‘home ground’? It may be better to ask to meet in a neutral, public location if this does not compromise the research objectives;
- If in-person meeting on the participant’s home ground is necessary or unavoidable:
- consideration should be given to pairs of researchers working together; or alternatively, two or more researchers could simultaneously meet with different participants in the same neighbourhood;
- respondents can be made aware that the researcher’s itinerary is known be others.
When working in a dangerous area it is sensible to develop some local knowledge, including such things as transport links and locations of police stations. Consideration should also be given to clothing, as it may be undesirable to be conspicuous as an outsider. Travel plans should be made in advance and the itinerary for travel and interviews should be given to someone who can function as ‘base’. Researchers should carry mobile phones in order to stay in contact with base and to inform of any rearrangements. Personal alarms can also be carried.
It is important to ensure that researchers have adequate experience and training to handle the situation. Relevant dimensions include:
- understanding of the cultural norms that apply in the particular field situation;
- awareness of the influence that gender can have on interview situations and, in particular, ways in which this might be manipulated by respondents;
- awareness of one’s own body language and that of the respondent;
- ability to judge the right balance of detachment and friendliness – in particular the appropriateness or otherwise of any physical contact;
- ability to discern when personal disclosure on the part of the researcher is a safe stratagem (personal disclosure is sometimes used as a means to develop rapport and encourage disclosure on the part of the respondent).
Questions about sensitive issues may on occasions engender angry responses from respondents. Researchers need to be prepared to deal with this kind of situation:
Researchers should […] be ready to spot signs that the respondent is becoming upset or angry. Often, the researcher's training means that strong feelings of this kind can be acknowledged and contained, but there may be occasions when it is more sensible to end the discussion and leave. Such a withdrawal should be decisive and quick, offering an appropriate reason.
Social Research Association ‘Safety Code of Practice’, pp.6-7
Institutions, departments or research groups that routinely engage in dangerous forms of research may consider developing ongoing support and training facilities.
Some forms of research – particularly those involving abused people, the terminally ill, vulnerable people or people on the margins of society – can put researchers at emotional risk. Obviously, a compassionate and empathic response to the suffering of others is right (and a good motivation for social research). However, researchers need to maintain their own wellbeing and to keep their emotional involvement with the researched within personally manageable and professionally appropriate bounds. It should be recognized that the engaging with peoples’ personal narratives can be distressing and over time this “emotional labour”1 can become burdensome and exhausting. There is also the possibility of respondents’ revelations resonating with and awakening the researcher’s own painful issues. A further possibility is experiencing emotional resistance to releasing research which has reached its normal conclusions; this can occur due to feelings of guilt about ‘abandoning’ people who have shared their problems.
It should be recognised that others, such as people who transcribe interviews, can also be at risk of experiencing emotional distress in response to the material. Transcribers and others reviewing data should, therefore, be fully informed about the nature of material before committing to take on the work.
It is arguable that there is a need for one-to-one supervision, or supervision groups, over and above the purely academic dimension of supervision. Academic supervisors, research leaders, peers or co-workers are not necessarily qualified to provide the necessary level of counselling. Institutions, departments or research groups that routinely engage in research of a type which may cause distress to research workers should consider developing programmes to deal with this (and might look to the counselling services, nursing, therapeutic and social work professions for models and skills).
Another form of risk could arise from immersion in more radical forms of participatory research where the researcher’s boundaries may become unclear. The unpredictable nature of this kind of work could result in anything from physical injury or health problems to emotional burnout or mental health issues. Similarly, some types of social anthropological fieldwork, such as investigating religious or psychotherapeutically-based cults, could place the researcher in danger. Researchers working with these kinds of methodology are well advised to establish support networks with others engaged in comparable work.
Some social researchers frame their work within a context of political activism. Others find that their research findings place them in a political arena (without their having particularly courted this outcome). The former type of researcher is likely to be better prepared to deal with the political fallout of publication (and possibly relishes it). Others may find this very stressful. This is an area where it is colleagues that are likely to be best placed to support each other. Most academic institutions have a central press office, which may also be able to provide assistance and should, in any case, be consulted when dealing with the general media (see Media and Publication section).
Under the terms of the Health and Safety at Work Act, employers of researchers (e.g. the university, research institute or, in some circumstances, the contracting agency) have a ‘duty of care’ towards their employees. This may be regarded as reverting to the research manager or the grant holder. Research funders, however, as well as employers and research managers should also have a responsibility towards the safety of researchers in the field. Nevertheless, in the context of social research it may be difficult to clarify how responsibilities should be shared, and difficult to ensure that these responsibilities are met.
1 The term “emotional labour” was coined by Margaret Melrose:
Melrose, M. 2002. ‘Labour Pains: some Considerations on the Difficulties of Researching Juvenile Prostitution’. International Journal of Social Research Methodology 5(4): 333-51
Cited on page 83 of: Liamputtong, Pranee 2007. Researching the Vulnerable. London: Sage Publications.