Staying Safe During Fieldwork

Safety in the Field

In August 2013, a former study abroad student published a report on her experiences with sexual violence in India that sparked a round of impassioned and angry responses. Why had no one said anything earlier? Was her account an exaggeration? Was she reinforcing colonial-era stereotypes about white women being sexually violated in the global South? The responses to her article piled into categories that had morally-laden stances: her bravery at revealing her story, her arrogant privilege at maligning a whole country, her naïveté at not using local resources to address the challenges she faced. What I find remarkable about the discussion is what it reveals about the stakes of discussing safety. Because of the difficulty of this conversation, safety is rarely part of the training that researchers receive before doing field research at home and abroad.

Social scientists encounter hazards that researchers who stay in labs might not because of the places they venture and the people upon whom they rely. I mean safety broadly—everything from what it takes to avoid sexual assault and harassment, to promoting physical and mental health, avoiding relationships that can be personally compromising, and not being run over by a bus (yes, I mean that last one seriously). Consequently, many researchers have few tools to assess safety in the places where they research. After research, many researchers find that after being asked the question of “how was —?” that their colleagues at home are not always interested or able to hear the complicated response. Amongst anthropologists, there is a joke that therapy is a rite of passage upon returning from the field to deal with all you experienced and the fact that now no one understands. Except, unlike other rites of passage, no one discusses this one.

I maintain that safety must be discussed, both before and after field research—both for scholars who are doing research in a place where they are native or where they are foreign.

The women’s rights movement has drawn attention to the importance of not blaming victims. However, an inadvertent byproduct of this in contemporary academic departments is that there is less discussion of how researchers can play a role in promoting their own safety. The only way to have this discussion is to accept guidelines for safety for what they are. Neither do they result in the social change that many researchers hope for, nor do they challenge the representations of communities. Neither should they be used to assign blame, nor should they be used to assume that safety will necessarily follow. What frank talk about safety does do, however, is force researchers to begin thinking about it as an essential part of the research process.

Here, I share insights gathered from my own experiences during fieldwork in a Delhi slum community over 14 months from 2007-2009 and from previous experiences studying and living in India. What I learned is that safety is tricky. Talking about safety when you return can be maddening because the risks you faced are not understood. Talking about safety when in the field can be equally maddening because it is so difficult to tell what is safe and what is dangerous.

Advice about safety will vary: talk to many people.

Many of the challenges you will face in safety in your field will be similar to the situations that locals face. For instance, as a woman in India I faced some of the same challenges to traveling in public spaces as many other women did. Some things were difficult for me, as a white outsider (I encountered much more staring); some things were far easier (many people took care to explain things patiently to me). Each person with whom I discussed my research mentioned different safety issues. Several of my middle class friends suggested that work in slums was dangerous; that eating and drinking there would leave me very sick. Within the community where I worked, families emphasized the threat that came from interacting with people I did not know and the danger of traveling with women from the community who invited me to their home villages. Listen to different concerns and learn. Sometimes safety recommendations come from a lack of familiarity—after all, the anthropologist voice reminds us, safety and danger are culturally constructed. But sometimes …

You have a lot to learn and you just do not know enough to tell danger from safety.

I initially dismissed the warnings of women in the community where I worked that some of their neighbors were not safe. They knew I dismissed those warnings. But four months into research, an interlocutor showed me a newspaper article describing how a local man—who I had interviewed just a few weeks earlier—had been arrested along with another man from the community for attempting to murder the second man’s wife (tying her to the railroad tracks behind the community) in order to get financial reward. “This is what I mean,” she explained, “when I tell you that you can’t just talk to anybody.” Be cognizant of the fact that warnings may be backed by information that your colleagues and interlocutors may find difficult to share.

Many things do not simply fall into the binary of safe/dangerous—build guidelines to approach challenging situations.

During most of my fieldwork, I traveled by bus from the upper middle class neighborhood where I stayed to the community where I worked. Both the private and public buses of Delhi are broadly maligned. During the time of my fieldwork, there were a number of weeks when nearly every day or every other day these buses would cause a casualty. For women in particular, these buses were notorious for groping—and the site of the now internationally known gang rape case in December 2012. It was not necessary for me to take the bus. However, it was one of the best transportation options for my needs. Several protective friends issued a flat out “no you won’t” when I announced my intention to ride them. But other friends who took the bus showed me the ropes, indicating how women can be forceful about demanding seats in the ladies’ section; how elbows, pins, slaps, and forceful language can be used to reprimand perpetrators of violence; and recommended hours that were more safe to ride the buses. These guidelines did not eliminate the real dangers that buses presented—indeed, I injured myself significantly when exiting a bus and experienced some groping that cannot be discounted. But these guidelines made a difference, making me much more able to advocate for myself in the way that I saw other women surrounding me do as well.

Listen to local advice, decide what to follow, and know why you made the decision.

When demolition notices were posted in the community where I worked, my first reaction was to find a way to facilitate local organizing to stop it. After all, many other communities had successfully challenged demolition. But as I talked to an organizer friend of mine on the phone to get her advice, the local midwife who was an interlocutor and also mentor of mine intervened. She snatched the phone from my hands and explained to my friend, “Look—she comes and goes by herself. Now she is raising her fist to stop things. That cannot be safe.” The midwife pointed out that there were a number of powerful interests who wanted this demolition to happen and that many of those interests had local contacts who were watching what was happening. Conversely, my activist friend rightly emphasized the stakes of what would happen if no one acted. Which of these women’s conflicting advice should I follow? As more women expressed their fears about organizing and community members began pursuing other means to challenge demolition, I decided to step back. Others may likely have made a different decision. In such cases, what is safe is not clear.

Accept beforehand that you will be the one calling the shots on safety—and build a community that can help you assess your choices.

When in the field, you may turn to your advisers for advice only to have them say—with care and the best of intentions—that by now, you know your situation and options best. Indeed, they may be right! Others who may not understand your situation will discount your experiences and might make you feel as if it is all in your head. All of this can easily make you feel isolated. To the extent that you can, it is important to build your own small community of people to whom you can talk about your experiences—even if they do not share them. These people, who will grow deeply intimate with the details of what you face daily, can empathize with you and assist you in making decisions about your safety. Should you travel by yourself with an interlocutor whom you do not know well? Was a specific gesture a threat or not? For me, these people included a fellow researcher in Delhi, a roommate in India, and a close friend at home.

Be careful to balance the negative and the positive.

As you talk with people around you about issues of safety, it is important to share your concerns and frustrations as well as the positive experiences you have had. With the vast majority of people to whom I spoke, I did not share my safety challenges. To do so when they did not know me could inadvertently communicate my disrespect. Many of the families with whom I worked took measures to make sure that I was safe: accompanying me to the bus stop, driving me home on a motorcycle, warning me about potentially dangerous community members, and giving me advice on the safest ways to design my methods. Every day made it clear that my research would not have been possible without all of the generous help that families gave me, often at considerable cost to themselves. When I emphasized my exasperation above all, it was not appreciated. After all, what I experienced was negligible in comparison to the insecurity experienced by the women with whom I worked. Conversely, do not be foolishly optimistic. Many researchers are ashamed to mention their own frustrations or fears because they fear that these emotions are incomparable to what other people around them might be facing. Consistently neglecting your own safety will neither help you nor the people around you. You can look out for your own safety without detracting from your concern for others—in fact, they often encourage you to look out for yourself. There was no group of people who criticized me more for being negligent of safety than the women with whom I did my research.

Learn deeply, experience fully, and enjoy yourself—but remember that you can do all of this wisely.

Claire Snell-Rood
Postdoctoral Scholar
Department of Behavioral Science
University of Kentucky College of Medicine

Image: The author in a taxi. Photo by Robert Rood.

The views, perspectives, and opinions expressed here and by those providing comments are those of the author(s) and commentator(s) alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Dissertation Reviews, its members, editors, or advisory board members.

Leave a Reply