Should we do research in difficult environments?

 by Maaike Matelski / Reading Time: 6 Minutes /

Social scientists are increasingly becoming aware of the importance of ethical research standards. However, it is not always clear whose guidelines we should adhere to and which types of research should or should not be allowed. Anthropologists and other social scientists conducting fieldwork may face a particular set of challenges when interacting with local respondents and informants.

As I argued in a recent article, it can be difficult to study environments where few researchers have gone before, especially if these situations are considered potentially dangerous. Possible risks include hostility and harm to the researcher, but also direct and indirect negative consequences for research participants whose position or even safety might be threatened.

I will here share a few findings based on the research I conducted in Myanmar over the past years. At the start of my research, Myanmar (formerly Burma) was considered a pariah state fraught with conflict and human rights abuses. When I decided to visit the country for my thesis I encountered doubt and criticism, and was advised to operate from a safer environment where I would not endanger myself and others.


Other researchers have described similar dilemmas when conducting research in various conflict areas in the Middle East. A Master student who was conducting field research in Egypt wrote about the challenges she faced when the popular uprising broke out in 2011. She explained how the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ official advice to leave the country ran counter to the more nuanced local safety assessments she encountered, and her own desire to stay on. Another colleague wrote how the unfolding crisis in Syria profoundly affected his field research in neighboring Lebanon. Although this led to different types of issues than my own research, he too had to balance the potential risks of staying with the desire to bear witness and lend a hand.

These are difficult dilemmas for which there is no single solution. I will offer some considerations to take into account when making individual assessments.

 1) People want to be heard

The fact that people might be vulnerable and find themselves in situations of risk does not mean that they do not appreciate attention. If we want to study real people in real situations, we must accept that their lives are not always easy, that they face difficult choices and sometimes cope with loss. As researchers we are not necessarily obliged to report on human suffering, but neither should we be obliged to ignore it. When I presented my research proposal on Myanmar, some commenters suggested that I should conduct research with Burmese people living outside the country (e.g. in Thailand) instead. This way they assumed I could gather information while keeping myself and my respondents away from the possibly serious risks we would face in Myanmar. Yet as soon as I arrived in Myanmar, I was greeted by local people eager to share their views and correct some of the misunderstandings about their country that they thought existed abroad. A comparison of views held inside and outside the country proved particularly valuable in the course of my research.

 2) The researcher has primary responsibility

Despite the importance of our research, we should avoid exacerbating risk or suffering. I therefore argue that we as researchers remain primarily responsible for the ethical collection, analysis and dissemination of our research findings. We should do everything possible to avoid causing risk to our research participants, as harmful consequences cannot easily be undone. In my article I argue that we must first discuss the potential risks of research with our respondents, and then review their assessment to check if they too do not create unacceptable risks for themselves or others. In my case, many respondents were remarkably open and willing to discuss their activities, but they sometimes seemed unaware of the potential impact of having such information made public. As a result, I chose to anonymize certain data even when respondents had told me I could mention their name.

 3) Risk assessment is best conducted on a case-by-case basis

In countries such as the United States and Australia, ethical review boards play a much larger and more decisive role than in The Netherlands. The question is whether such procedures make the research stemming from these countries more ethical, or whether they merely serve to absolve universities of potential liability. Of course we can simply prohibit research in environments that are not considered a hundred percent safe, or where written consent cannot be obtained, but we must realize that this will have profound implications for the way peoples and countries are portrayed internationally. The more researchers choose to stay away from ‘difficult situations’ such as countries in turmoil or under authoritarian rule, the easier our views of the lives of their inhabitants become simplified, as we rely on a limited number of spokespersons or experts to represent the views of many. In the absence of binding ethical guidelines at VU University, I was encouraged to seek advice from people who had personally experienced the situation on the ground. This allowed me to come to a balanced approach in which I sought neither to endanger, nor ignore local people.

4) Situations can change

Another argument against general guidelines and prohibitions is that situations can change rapidly. My own research focus, Myanmar, has undergone a transition from pariah state to investment, tourism and donor hotspot in just a few years’ time. Political situations elsewhere however have deteriorated considerably, as my colleagues working on the Middle East have experienced. Although I had been advised to conduct research from Thailand, the security situation there at times has proven less stable than in many areas of Myanmar. Studying contemporary topics means that situations can improve or deteriorate at any time, and our research environment might no longer be the way we found it at the start. As risk assessments will differ not only between and within countries but also over time, researchers are often best advised by those with longer-term experience in the country. If those contacts have not been made, such assessment will be much more difficult.

Although our universities may be held accountable for our research activities, we can only come to new insights if we dare to venture beyond the comfort of familiar environments. As long as we do so responsibly, this is certainly a worthwhile endeavor. While my research at times has proven difficult, I gained many important insights from being able to talk to local people about the way they perceive and deal with risk in their daily lives, instead of relying solely on my own assumptions or the views of foreign experts. This revealed many complexities, paradoxes and insecurities that I reflect on in my thesis, hopefully to the benefit of other researchers seeking to make informed risk assessments in the future.


Maaike Matelski is a PhD candidate at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the VU University Amsterdam. Her research focuses on the role of Burmese civil society organisations inside and outside Myanmar during the political transition period since 2010.








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