The Ethics of Fieldwork – Prof Jenny Pickerill

My research has taken me to all sorts of places around the world and I have ended up in all sorts of situations. Common to all these encounters has been a concern about the ethics of my fieldwork and the impact that I am having on the places I am visiting. I was recently asked to do a talk on this complexity of doing overseas fieldwork at the Institute of Education, London and I have come to realise that there are some generic questions that many of us need to be asking about fieldwork. This applies whether you are an undergraduate or an experienced Professor. There are 10 questions that we should all ask ourselves about our research projects in relation to ethics and risk. It is precisely the ambiguity of what research is for, who it should benefit and what risk and harm is acceptable in conducting research that ethical thinking should help us navigate.

1. What and who are you doing this research for?
Our work as academics should therefore be socially and ecologically responsible. Our work should not be implicated in the displacement, exploitation or oppression of peoples nor support neo-liberal policies of privatisation, resource theft, or corporate expansion. But who will benefit from the research? It is OK that you will benefit from the research, in getting a degree, in status, in named publications, but it also has to benefit others as well. The main point is – being honest and clear with yourself as to what and who you are doing the research for.

2. Who are you?
Our identities (as researchers, activists, women, white, homosexuals etc) overlap and intertwine with our research and, in practice, negate many of the dualisms that have been long established in academia. In other words, it is unlikely that you are only, or even foremost, an academic. Yet you might be viewed as one. Therefore we need to celebrate and be open about our identities and do so because their complexity is part of an ethical approach. Equally, if we are to take identity and ethics seriously, then ethical questions become ongoing and central to our research. In other words, all too often it is only early career researchers who are encouraged to think about their ethical approach, while senior academics assume that they have resolved all the issues. Yet there is ongoing physical and emotional labour involved in our research, our identities change and we need to continue to be reflexive about the challenges we face.

For me it is therefore vital to know who you are, before you start asking others to explain who they are.

3. How do you get access?
Access is often an ongoing, fragile and temporary agreement. It is rarely secured through one gatekeeper, or agreed permanently. Sometimes we might make promises to help in return, but we need to think carefully about what we can really deliver and whether we are helping for the right reasons.

4. What is your contribution to the issue/ cause/ group?
It may be impossible to ‘pay back’ a research participant for their efforts in any direct way, but the utility of the results of research might offer some benefit through producing academic research that will ultimately help a cause or group, albeit indirectly. This might be through the co-production of knowledge and on a practical level collaborative working with research participants. But more often than not we produce sole-authored dissertations, thesis or journals articles where the language, findings and timeliness of our research can be of limited use to non-academics. Thus we need to articulate how producing knowledge can benefit society. This is a harder task, but it is vitally important that we articulate to others (and ourselves) the value of academic knowledge. Overall, be very clear what your contribution is likely to be, and don’t undersell the utility of your academic expertise.

5. Have you got enough time to do this?
Ethical, participatory research takes considerable time. Yet in this results-driven era of academia where outputs are all that counts, spending months working with case studies can seem a luxury few can afford. It is often the temporal implications of participation, the evolving affiliation with research subjects, that emerge which raise really interesting ethical dilemmas. So we need to explore not just how much time can we be in the field, but other ways in which to maintain the connections, continue to interact and continue to share.

6. How will you keep your data secure?
In ensuring participant confidentiality and anonymity, we need to think through all possibility of data getting lost, being hacked, or being taken by the police. Make sure that you have a robust plan for how you are going to store your data – be that by spreading it around different places, encrypting it, or having hardcopies only. Make sure that if your data were seized it could not be used to identify any participants. This is especially true if you have to take data across borders, I tend to post material back so that it is not always on me. Data and your participants become particularly vulnerable when you start to publish your data. This is when your work gets noticed. Make sure all participants understand that you are collecting data on them, what it will be used for and how it will be used. This might involve reminding people. I work by the mantra ‘if it doubt, leave it out’ of your publications.

7. How much should you participate?
You need to be prepared to not participate. Make sure that you participate because you personally want to take an action, not simply for the sake of your research. Don’t let your research consume your life, ensure you have time away from participating. You will need perspective to help you make clear decisions.

8. What is the worst thing that could happen?
Plan for worst-case scenario. Know your rights – legally, as a researcher/ student/ employee of university. Do not travel with incriminating evidence or data on you.

9. Who will support you in doing this research?
It is important to know who will support you in your research in the field, especially if it goes wrong. The life of the fieldwork researcher can often be a lonely one, with extremely individualised engagements and a lack of support among fellow academics. One way to counter this is for radical academics to collectively organise, strategise and act. Find out, before you need it, who would support you if you were arrested or your data got seized by the police. But perhaps most importantly, who will support you in having time off, in maintaining friendships and family. Ethics need to include a reflection on care-of-self as well as care of research participants.

10. How do you leave?
It is important to consider how and when you are going to leave the field. I have always found it impossible to write up research while in and amongst the case studies and activists I am working with. At some point we all have to draw a line under being involved and collecting data. Taking an ethical approach requires us to understand how, even when those with whom we work might be many thousands of miles away, we respect and incorporate and feedback their views into our work. It requires us to understand how distance – physically and intellectually – does not negate our responsibilities.

This blog uses some material from articles written with Kevin Gillan (Manchester), Stuart Hodkinson (Leeds) and Paul Chatterton (Leeds).


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