Considering Ethics and Safety in Field Research in the Global South

Field research is an integral part of data collection for many (PhD) researchers. Yet, questions of ethics and safety in the field are not always adequately addressed by institutions, universities, and PhD supervisors. Thus, many insecurities prevail. How to deal with power relations when conducting research in the Global South? And how to make sure that all parties remain safe and sound when dealing with sensitive topics?

In order to discuss such questions and to create a room for exchange, a team of six PhD students from German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA: Niklas Krösche, Lisa Hoffmann, Désirée Reder and Swantje Schirmer) and Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF/HSFK: Simone Schnabel and Clara-Auguste Süß) organized the digital workshop “Considering Ethics and Safety in Field Research in the Global South” on 8th and 9th of December 2020. Thanks to the financial support of the Leibniz PhD Network’s event funding, we virtually brought together 24 doctoral researchers from GIGA, PRIF, Helmut-Schmidt University Hamburg as well as from the Universities of Bonn, Tübingen, and Leiden.

The two-day workshop focussed on two crucial, yet still widely overlooked aspects of field research – ethics and safety – and thereby aimed at discussing and critically reflecting power relations, identity and positionality in the field. The participants were invited to not only share their experiences but also their inquiries which helped to critically assess our role as researchers in conducting research in the Global South. In doing so, the workshop featured participant presentations focusing on individual research projects and questions as well as two keynote speakers followed by Q&A sessions.

The first workshop day on ethics was kicked off with a keynote by Prof. Dr. Timothy Williams (Bundeswehr University Munich) who explored ethical questions and responsibilities arising from social relations with interviewees, research assistants and the state during field research. Special attention was given to aspects related to power, vulnerability, security and data. The keynote led to three major takeaways:

  • First, there is no one size fits all approach when thinking about questions related to ethics. Instead, before entering the field, a detailed and context-specific planning process is of utmost importance.
  • Second, building and sustaining trust is a key prerequisite in field research.
  • Third, ethics is more than an institutional requirement but it is ingrained in and integral to the whole process of research and knowledge production.

Thus, discussions about ethics should be held on a regular basis. Later that day, three participants gave insights in their own research projects, referring to localized ethics, positionality and trust, and to coping strategies when researching sensitive questions and topics.

The second day first started off with a keynote by Ilyas Saliba (WZB/GPPi) on safety aspects before, during and after field research, as well as on digital security. His talk built on both the recently co-edited book “Safer Field Research in the Social Sciences” and his own experiences when doing research in North Africa. Key insights included the importance of a thorough risk assessment of direct and indirect threats and the responsibility of researchers for all involved actors. Two participant presentations then covered local violent conflicts, aggression and road safety, as well as sexual harassment during field research. The workshop closed with an open discussion wrapping up the two days and identifying broad links and overarching questions. 

Thanks to the outstanding speakers and the participants’ willingness to share their experiences and inquiries, the workshop provided very helpful and thought-provoking insights with regard to ethics and safety in the context of field research. Additionally, despite having taken place digitally, all participants and organizers agreed that they succeeded in creating a safe space, which allowed everyone to address and discuss more personal concerns and sensitive topics. Furthermore, the workshop fostered exchange not only within the organizing team prior to the event, but later also within the whole workshop group. There was wide-spread interest amongst organizers and participants to continue this exchange, within a broader setting as well as on a more individual basis, for instance in a topic- or region-centered manner.

We hope that this is only one of many future initiatives discussing the questions of safety and ethics in fieldwork and that cooperation between all involved research institutions will also prosper.

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