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Part three: Maintaining boundaries and staying safe

By Miriam van den Berg & Tamar Oderwald

This article is also available to read in our ebook "Ethnographic Fieldwork: An anthropology student's toolkit". Click here to download.

Let us get straight to the point: Your personal safety is ALWAYS more important than your research. Especially if you are part of a marginalized community, and especially if you are doing fieldwork on your own. No amount of valuable data is worth risking your safety for (read that again!). There is so much to say on this topic, but we find that conversations such as these can be lacking in study curriculums. With this article, we hope to open the door to sharing our collective concerns and experiences. Be mindful that this means that we’ll touch upon some things that can be triggering. We believe it’s important to talk about the good and bad of fieldwork, but that doesn’t mean you have to read it if you feel uncomfortable doing so. After all, maintaining boundaries is kind of the entire point of this chapter. You can leave a comment below this text - with the possibility to remain anonymous - to share your story if you wish to do so.

Determining your boundaries

Think about where you place your boundaries before you leave. In the field, you'll have to make split-second decisions, and you won't always have time to actually reflect on whether you feel comfortable with something. You know your own comfort levels best. We do encourage you to step outside your comfort zone a bit because the growth from that is one of the best things about fieldwork. But you're likely already going to a place you don't know and/or working with people you don't know. That can be enough of a change, and that's okay.

Before you go, think about whether you're okay with people around you drinking, doing drugs, or taking part in not-so-legal activities. There are lots of reasons why you might want to take yourself out of those situations, and it helps if you know this, or at least think about it, before you're in them and you're overwhelmed. Situations like these can happen during any research, but if you know that you won’t feel right about engaging in such activities, it would be best not to choose a research topic that presents a high likelihood of such events taking place.

Also think about other stuff like food or clothes. Tamar is vegan and Miriam is vegetarian, which means we both had to think about whether we'd be okay with eating stuff we normally wouldn't if our research participants cooked for us. It may sound silly, but I (Tamar) compiled a list in my head of what I would be willing to eat, and what would be a no-go for me. Cookies offered with tea during a first meeting? Yes. Other products with “indirect” eggs and dairy? Maybe. Meat of any kind? No. It depends on your research population, of course. For both of my research experiences, I specifically chose groups of people with whom I could eat at least vegetarian; with whom it would not pose a social boundary. Because that’s what it comes down to, really. Food is such an integral part of a culture. And sharing meals, no matter how big or small, is an amazing opportunity for an anthropologist to build rapport and connect with their interlocutors. Not being able to accept any of the food that was offered to me would have harmed that process. That was enough reason for me to slightly bend my moral compass. So, ask yourself before you go: Does it matter enough to you that you say no, or are you okay with eating something outside of your dietary preferences during fieldwork if you're offered it?

Concerning clothes, think about what your research participants might wear and what their preferences are concerning clothing. If your research participants all have office jobs, and your research has to do with that, be mindful of your own outfits. If you are often visiting religious or sacred spaces, it may be required or expected that you wear modest clothing, for the sake of your own safety and your participants’ comfort. Oftentimes just regular, everyday clothes will be fine in whatever situation, but it helps to be prepared a bit more based on the typical outfits of your research population. But you can also be invited to things that might have different wardrobe expectations. When I (Miriam) went to the outback, we also had the opportunity to swim in a river, which meant that I had to wear a bikini to do that. I knew two people out of the group kind of well, and the other seven I had met the day before. So that was quite a lot of skin to be showing after such a short period of time. I knew that I was going to feel comfortable enough that that would be fine, but it might be uncomfortable for someone else. It helps to know your own boundaries surrounding clothes, and what parts of your body you might not want to show before you go.

Just know that you don't have to do anything you don't want to. It just helps when you have an idea of what it is you don't want to do before you have to figure out your thoughts and feelings on the spot.

Exchanging contact information

Let your supervisor, family, and friends know where you will be staying. Give them the exact address, as well as some phone numbers of contacts, such as any roommates or a gatekeeper if possible. They won’t contact them, but it is useful for them to have a point of contact when they cannot reach you in case of an emergency. Similarly, appoint someone back home as an emergency contact as well. You can give this information to your university, as well as the people you engage with during your research. Should something happen to you that your loved ones need to know about, they can be reached out to.

Trusting your gut

Don’t disregard the vibes. Vibes are important. Be open to exploring new places and trusting new people - generally people will be lovely and willing to help you, but take the vibes seriously. If something feels wrong, it often is.

Even though my research topic could not be more innocent, I (Tamar) still experienced a potentially scary situation when I saw that I had two missed calls from an unknown Canadian phone number. Looking at the profile picture of the middle-aged man on WhatsApp, I suddenly felt very uneasy. I could not point to exactly what ignited this feeling, but something in me told me not to call him back. Instead, I texted him: “Hey! I’m not available to take calls at the moment. Can you tell me what it’s about via text?” I was about to head out the door for a dinner with a group of participants and I didn’t have data so I would not have been able to call or text him while I was gone anyway. But just before I left, he sent me a long string of incoherent, strange, somewhat intimidating messages. He had heard about my research and told me that I “should really want to speak with him”. A little (actually: very) creeped out, I turned off my WiFi and headed out the door so that I would not have to deal with it at that moment. When I returned home from dinner and switched my WiFi back on, my phone lit up to announce five (!) more missed calls from this number. This was after I had told him I was not available to call and after he had concluded his string of text messages. Red flags raised, alarm bells ringing. Let’s shut this down. I pondered on how to do that for a while, while remaining professional and without offending him too much. So I sent a final text message: “Thank you for your enthusiasm! I’m unfortunately a bit overwhelmed with the amount of people that have reached out to me, so I am not able to schedule any more interviews. I hope you understand.” (I lied, by the way) “Ja, ich verstehe” (“Yes, I understand”), he wrote back, hinting at my German last name. It turned out I had dodged a very large bullet. When I met his half-sister a few days later, she said: “I heard my brother reached out to you. Is that right?” “Yes, he did,” I said. “He called me a few times.” “Okay, I just want you to know that he is a sexual predator. So please don’t meet up with him.” And just like that, my eerie feeling started making sense. Luckily, this was the end of it. I expected some more calls from him, but I haven’t heard from him since that final message.

If I have learned anything from this experience, it is to trust my instincts! It is totally okay to “just” say no. You may sometimes feel like you should accept every opportunity and every potential interviewee that crosses your path while you’re doing fieldwork. But - as mentioned before - preserving your safety should be your top priority. If things feel off: don’t engage. Search for a way to get out of the situation or talk to someone who could help you. This is especially important to remember when your research topic touches on themes such as violence, oppression, or illegality.

It also made me realize just how vulnerable you really are during a fieldwork project. You are reliant on the goodwill of strangers to share knowledge with you, often at their homes, in a perhaps unfamiliar place where you don’t know a lot of people. My email address and phone number got passed around and forwarded to dozens of people. Which was the point, mind you, but it can attract some unsavory characters. That’s another good argument for bringing along a separate fieldwork phone, as we mentioned in part 1.

We leave you with this food for thought, should you find yourself in a peculiar situation during your research: If the same situation was presented to you outside the context of fieldwork, how would you respond? And in what way does or should your position as a researcher influence that response, if at all?

What if you do experience a violation of your boundaries?

No matter how much you might be prepared, sometimes bad things happen anyway. An anthropologist may experience assaults, sexually or otherwise, they may be taken advantage of in other ways, they may be expected to partake in activities they are not comfortable with, just to name a few. Even if you have tried to navigate your research in a way that circumvents these scenarios as much as possible, you unfortunately can’t guarantee that everyone you come in contact with has pure intentions. We find it important to mention first and foremost that, if a violation of your boundaries happens, it’s not your fault. And you don’t have to sit with it alone. These sentiments might be a tad cliché or overdone, but that does not make them less true.

About a month into my (Miriam) fieldwork period, my roommate’s girlfriend came over to use laughing gas. I don’t necessarily have a problem with people doing drugs near me, and I just thought that since it is considered soft drugs it wouldn’t really be a problem. He texted me a couple of minutes before they arrived that this is what they were planning on doing, and that it might be loud so he wanted to preemptively apologize for that. But it shouldn’t take too long, he said, and they would probably be finished around 1 AM. A bit annoying, but not really a problem for me, I figured. Boy, was I wrong. Pretty much as soon as they walked in, she started to use the laughing gas, pumping it from a large tank (which was incredibly loud). And she began talking about not-so-great subjects such as how she had hit him and that even though the Australian government didn’t allow abuse, she thought it was okay. Let’s just say that I started feeling uncomfortable pretty fast. I tried texting someone I knew to ask if I could sleep over there, but he was already asleep and I wasn’t really keen on spending a lot of money to stay at a hotel (and walking around the city at night with no clue where to go). I was also still hoping they’d be done kind of soon. So, I excused myself, went into my bedroom and barricaded my door with a standing mirror and desk chair (as it didn’t have a lock). I also texted Tamar about what was happening and we began face timing at about midnight to talk about it, but mainly so that I felt a bit safer as there was someone ‘there’ that could see me and would notice if anything happened. I could hear them talk (actually: shout) and argue, worst of all at 4 AM, when my roommate yelled at his girlfriend that he was going to kill her. I didn’t want to draw more attention to the fact that I was there and didn’t feel safe intervening, but I did make sure to listen closely so that he wouldn’t actually physically hurt her, or vice versa. After that, things started to calm down, and by 5 AM, I was so fed up with them, I walked out to the living room to go to the bathroom (to remind them that I was there and could hear everything, and also because I had been locked in my room for about six hours). I then tried to go to sleep and caught a whole three hours of z’s before I had to get up and leave the apartment. The next morning my roommate texted me that he was sorry, and a couple of days later when I paid him my rent he took some money off the rent and apologized again. I asked him about the relationship and voiced my concerns, but he tried to assure me that everything was alright and that they were just going through a bit of a rough patch. I didn’t feel comfortable going into it a lot as I didn’t really know him or his girlfriend, so I just tried to let it go. After that, I tried to make sure I wouldn’t be in the apartment when she was there, and I bought a door stopper so that I could bar my door. It didn’t happen again.

It was quite a scary experience. I didn’t really feel like they were going to hurt me, but I also couldn’t rule that out completely. I also didn’t feel like I could call any type of police or security without making it worse, especially knowing that I still had to live somewhere for two months in a city where I didn’t really know many people. Don’t get me wrong: if it had happened again, or if I felt unsafe again, I would have moved. Worst case scenario, I would have moved into a hotel until I had a much bigger debt than I have now, but I would have left. And that is my main reason for telling you this: expect the unexpected. Sometimes things happen that you are not prepared for, so try and make sure you are prepared for unexpected changes and extra costs. I knew that I had the opportunity to leave because I had saved extra money beforehand, and that if it came to my safety my parents could also spring in with money for me to move.

As Tamar wrote earlier, doing fieldwork puts you in a very vulnerable position, even outside your typical fieldwork activities. I luckily never felt unsafe with any participants or during participant observation but instead felt unsafe in the non-research bit of my fieldwork. It’s important to know that you will be interacting with a lot of different people, and it helps to be prepared for some worst-case scenarios.

For me, it really helped to talk about it. Not going through it completely alone, because I was video calling with Tamar, made me feel less unsafe at that moment. I later also told a couple of people that I knew in the city what happened, and they all assured me that if it happened again they would come and get me so that I didn’t have to stay in that situation again. And, the door stopper was one of the best things I bought overseas because of the peace of mind it gave me.

Everybody processes these situations differently though, and you know your own coping mechanisms better than anyone. But we will provide here some general advice that might help you move through it.

It might be good to take a break from your research for a little bit. If you have the option to visit home or return to another familiar/comfortable environment, that can help to ease some anxiety or tension. Some people prefer to process events like this on their own, but in general, we do encourage you to talk about it with whomever you feel comfortable doing so. This could be your fieldwork partner, your friends back home, your parents or caregivers, a therapist, or a counselor. If you feel comfortable, it would also be good to schedule a call with your supervisor so that they know what’s going on. Perhaps they are able to provide you with some perspective. In any case, we advise you to at least let your supervisor know that you will be taking a break due to personal circumstances. They are there to help you, and they can take your situation into account during the rest of your research.

Depending on the severity of the situation, you can consider talking to local authorities as well. Though we realize that this can be a difficult decision where many factors can be of influence: your ethnic identity, your gender, your sexual orientation, the consequences for you and your interlocutors, and the reputation of the police in that region. If your personal safety is compromised and speaking to authorities is not an option - or even sometimes if it is - you could consider a change in your research topic so that you literally remove yourself from the field in which the violation took place. It’s never too late to do that. While it is a big shift, it might be the preferred option over staying where you are.

If the situation is milder, consider talking it out with the person who overstepped your boundary, perhaps in the company of your fieldwork partner or another interlocutor. With anthropology comes a lot of intercultural communication, and that can lead to intercultural miscommunication as well. That might be the case here, in which case it can be helpful to voice your interpretation of a situation and to ask the other person if they intended it that way. From there, you can reaffirm your boundaries with them, and they can do the same.

Further recommendations

In addition, we can recommend a few publications about the safety of an anthropologist, if you wish to read more into this topic.

Davis, Sarah H., and Melvin Konner. 2011. Being There: Learning to Live Cross-Culturally. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Diphoorn, Tessa. 2013. “The Emotionality of Participation: Various Modes of Participation in Ethnographic Fieldwork on Private Policing in Durban, South Africa.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 42(2): 201-225.

Ghassem-Fachandi, Parvis. 2009. Violence: Ethnographic Encounters. London: Routledge.

Nilan, Pamela. 2002. “‘Dangerous Fieldwork’ Re-Examined: The Question of Researcher-Subject Position.” Qualitative Research 2(3): 363-386.

What about you?

What do you wish you had known about ethnographic fieldwork before embarking on that journey? Leave us a comment below and share your experiences with fellow students! We always appreciate your insights and stories.

Next up

In our next segment (to be published on 18 October), we’ll tackle the often overlooked and time-consuming tasks of administrative work associated with fieldwork. Stay tuned!

1 Kommentar

Tamar Oderwald
Tamar Oderwald
02. Nov. 2023

Hey (soon-to-be) anthropologists! 🌏

Of course, now that everything is done and published, I've thought of two more very important safety tips to keep in mind if you're going abroad for your fieldwork. These are especially important if you will be traveling to a relatively unsafe country, but I recommend following these tips regardless of your destination.

1. Register your stay abroad in OSIRIS student

Choose the option of "field research". Doing this will make it known to the International Office that you are abroad for a certain amount of time. If a major dangerous event takes place in the region while you are there, your International Office will be able to contact you and - if necessary - undertake…

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