In recent years, conducting field research has become an increasingly risky endeavor, particularly in states or regions characterized by violent conflict, repressive political regimes, or state failure. Working under such conditions or with marginalized communities facing similar circumstances is challenging. Researchers need to protect themselves and those with whom they work. They need to find ways to assure the physical safety of their respondents, and they must consider whether and how confidentiality can be maintained. High-profile cases—such as that of Italian PhD researcher Giulio Regeni, who was found tortured to death on a roadside in Egypt, or of Princeton graduate student Xiyue Wang, imprisoned in Iran—are horrendous. And they are only the tip of the iceberg.
Despite the fact that scholars across a range of disciplines face more and more challenges, guidance on how to prepare and conduct safe research is not readily available. As Ahram and Goode have recently observed, methodological texts in political science ‘do not offer a formula for “best practices” for authoritarian research’. Instead, such knowledge is often acquired through ‘a kind of informal apprenticeship in a fraternity on researchers.’ This project thus brought together scholars in a series of workshops and professional Hostile Environment and Emergency First Aid Trainings (HEFAT) to discuss security issues related to the social sciences and prepare material that will aid other researchers in conducting research safely in increasingly challenging environments.
The SAFEResearch project has resulted in a handbook Safer Field Research in the Social Sciences. The handbook describes the types of challenges researchers face in the field and provides a set of best practices and tools for safer fieldwork. It is a collaborative effort written by researchers, journalists, and NGO workers from around the world. Covering the stages of typical research processes in the social sciences—from research preparations to safety during research and post-research debriefing—the handbook outlines ways in which the physical safety of researchers and subjects can be improved and the confidentiality of data and communication preserved in politically sensitive settings. Drawing on the experiences of scholars, journalists, data activists, and human rights practitioners, the handbook covers both human and digital security and offers practical suggestions for conducting research in difficult environments.
For further information about this project, contact Jannis Grimm at email@example.com.
Freie Universität Berlin
King's College London
WZB Berlin Social Science Center
SAFEResearch is written in an accessible, easy-to-read style. Each chapter concludes with a checklist, so that supervisors and researchers can easily develop security frameworks suited to the context of their work. The book contains advice on further resources for implementing the guidance from the different chapters, including templates for conducting proper risk assessments, technical advice and step-by-step software instructions, as well as information on organizations that could provide practical hostile-environment training or can provide more case specific digital security know-how.
More about the Safer Research Book:
WZB Talk by Ilyas Saliba and Jannis Grimm: Safer Field Research in the Social Sciences: a Guidebook for Fieldwork Protection and Digital Security. Listen here.
Presentation of the Handbook by Jannis Grimm, Kevin Koehler, Ellen Lust, Ilyas Saliba, and Isabell Schierenbeck. Link to download the presentation: SAFEResearch in Hostile Environments.
Watch Isabell Schierenbeck's presentation on Research Safety and Ethics!
This project was supported by the SAFEResearch e-Handbook Conference (Swedish Research Council – 2017-06149), PI: Ellen Lust and the SAFEResearch: Workshop, e-Handbook, and Conference grants (Riksbankens Jubileumsfond - F17-1245:1), PI: Ellen Lust.