The myth of the ivory tower


Bubbleby Rosanne Anholt | Reading Time: 3-4 Minutes /

In the social sciences, we often obtain our data from people. We may collect opinions, experiences or understandings from different groups of people through various methods, like surveys, observations or interviews. As researchers, we have the responsibility to do our research participants no harm, and to behave ethically and with integrity towards them. Often however, there are others involved in our research – in addition to research participants – and we have a responsibility towards them, too.

To protect those who allow us to interview them, partake in our focus group discussions or document their lives in our photovoice projects, we obtain informed consent, ensure confidentiality and put data protection measures in place. Besides research participants however, we may encounter a range of other people at various stages of the research process. Fixers, for example, who help us arrange interviews with people we might otherwise not have access to, or interpreters and translators, who help us understand our research participants. There may also be student-assistants, who transcribe our interviews, take over our teaching duties during our fieldwork, or accompany us in order to gain some research experience. Sometimes, we seem to forget that the “do no harm” principle applies just as much to them as to the people we interview or observe – of which the following true story is a deplorable example.


During one of my fieldwork trips for my PhD research on how humanitarian and development practitioners interpret the idea of “resilience” and translate it into practice, I am hosted by a young Syrian who works for a humanitarian organization. One morning, as he and I are having chai (tea) outside in a hesitant Spring sun, he tells me about a time he was hosting a student from a European university who was studying the experiences of Syrian refugees for his master thesis research project.

Without any Arabic speaking skills nor access to the Syrian refugee communities, the student asked my Syrian host to help him out. They agreed on a decent compensation, after which my host organized more than a dozen interviews with different Syrian families both inside and outside the country’s different refugee camps, as well as acting as an interpreter during the interviews. When the student left the country, he promised to transfer the payment for the hours of work my host put in and the expenses he made – like travel costs and small gifts for the Syrian families participating in the study.

In the few months after the student left, there were different excuses to delay the payment. From bank accounts allegedly not working, to money running low due to hospital expenses made for a family member. The student even went as far to propose using his university department’s charity fund on the condition that my host could produce a counterfeit company name and registered address – the illegality of which could have put my host in real danger. My host declined, and when the student stopped replying to his messages, he eventually gave up.

If we fail to practice our research in a principled manner, as this student has, we may cause harm to the people we work with. We also risk discrediting the scholarly community, and ultimately put people’s trust in researchers and their willingness to work with them at stake. Transparency is one important measure we can take in order to be accountable to the people we engage with throughout the research process. This means, for example, to negotiate a contract when outsourcing research-related activities. We may also share information about the institutions and individuals – including supervisors – involved in a research project, to give research participants and others the option to file a complaint in case agreements are violated.

Contrary to popular belief, researchers don’t operate in a vacuum. The ivory tower, where researchers are completely cut off from the world in order to cook up scientific theories, is a myth. Even when we don’t co-produce knowledge through the interaction with research participants, we are ultimately embedded in institutions where we engage with our colleagues, students and non-academic staff. Moreover, universities increasingly interact with the outside world – not just with other academic institutions, but also with societal partners like municipalities or non-governmental organizations. That also means we may have more responsibility than we think.

Rosanne Anholt is a Lecturer and PhD Candidate at the department of Political Science and Public Administration. Her research focuses on how humanitarian and development organizations interpret and use the policy buzzwords resilience, humanitarian-development nexus and local ownership in responding to the impact of the Syria crisis in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.


Wearing two hats?


Serving seniors or serving science: a dilemma game

MarijeBlokBubble1 by Marije Blok | Reading Time: 3-4 Minutes /

Serving seniors or serving science?
Loneliness is a serious problem among older people. My organization, the National Foundation for the Elderly, aims to tackle this challenge through different activities. My team works on innovations to support ageing in a meaningful way. We investigate wishes of older people in interviews; explore their ideas in co-design sessions and test prototypes. I love my job! And it only got better when I succeeded in creating a PhD position to enrich it: now I would even be better able to serve the elderly! However, soon I discovered that serving science is not always the same as serving seniors and I started to face ethical challenges.


Dilemmas of a double role
All researchers face ethical challenges. Lucky us: there are guides to help us out. The Netherlands Code of Conduct for Research Integrity – the integrity Bible for (Dutch) researchers – provides methodological and ethical standards. It introduces a set of ‘virtues’ for good scholars, including honesty, scrupulousness, transparency, independence, and responsibility.

As a researcher working for an employer outside the university, I’m also supposed to take principals of my organization into account, including making a difference, being involved, flexible, connecting and distinct. However, both sets of principals sometimes conflict. I often feel like I’m wearing two hats, as values of my organization and science are not always aligned.

The Erasmus University developed the Dilemma Game, supporting researchers in practicing with hypothetical dilemmas. Inspired by playing this game in a course at the faculty, I reflect in this blog post in a playful way on dilemmas I faced in my work. Next to exploring what to do when interests of seniors and science seem to clash, I hope to motivate fellows operating both in science and society to reflect on their work as well. All blocks contain a dilemma (left) and the considerations I made (right).


Representing a wellbeing organization, I felt responsible to make participating a pleasant experience for the older people (B). However, I also found the value of scrupulousness important and didn’t want to be flexible at the cost of this scientific value (A).  I choose A, as including new persons would anyway affect the reliability of the results (A+C). Unfortunately, this was not a happy-ending story. The collaboration was disturbed and another participant left because her friend wasn’t welcome.


This dilemma forced me to choose between being flexible and connecting (A) – according to my organization’s values – or scrupulous and independent (B) – following scientific principles. C was a successful mix: beneficial for my organization without ignoring scientific standards.


As an elderly organization, we joined this project to make a difference in older people’s lives and considered this approach (B) suitable for this. Our partners considered replacing participants at the cost of scrupulousness and not in line with ethical standards (A). We considered B, but first discussed this with the partners once again. This worked out surprisingly well, so we ended with C.


Considering what would be most honest from a scientific point of view (A, B) I decided to be transparent in reporting, but to not use their input (A). Instead of interviewing her husband I spent additional time having coffee with the lady, as I felt responsible after her sharing her story (C). This mix was a good strategy and in line with both my organization and research


A beautiful hat
I am not a talker at all, but I feel you really listen to me and that makes me share my story’ – an 85-year old lady when I finalize my interview. For a moment I feel guilty, as my primary interest was a valuable dataset. But then I realize that a valuable encounter can be valuable for my research at the same time. Reflecting on my dilemmas taught me that although my organization’s values are not always similar to those in science, decisions aren’t necessarily black or white. Am I wearing two hats, in my position? No, I’m not. I’m wearing a very special one and will do this with pride!

Marije Blok (MSc) is an (external) PhD candidate studying ageing and technology at the Sociology department (VU) and a project manager in the Innovation department at the National Foundation for the Elderly (Nationaal Ouderenfonds). Here she will share the experiences on her journey through science and society.


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.