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Danger in the Field: Risk and Ethics in Social Research

Geraldine Lee-Treweek and Stephanie Linkogle (editors)
Routledge: London
2000
0415193222 (pb)
16.99 (pb)
x + 212

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Writing in 1990, the anthropologist Nancy Howell observed that there was little written about fieldwork hazard. A trickle of books and articles on the topic has appeared since. In their edited collection, Danger in the Field, Lee-Treweek and Linkogie add to the literature and seek to stretch its conceptual boundaries. For them, existing work ignores both the emotional stresses of fieldwork and the professional repercussions that can flow from some kinds of research. They suggest the terms 'emotional danger' and 'professional danger' should be added to the fieldwork lexicon.

Louise Westmarland's observation of armed police response units, David Calvey's study of bouncers, and Janet Jamieson's work on young people and crime all point to the physical risks of fieldwork. In a theme that runs through the book, each suggests that experiencing the meanings of danger for researcher and research participant alike itself aids understanding of the setting. Calvey takes this perhaps a step further, arguing that danger mandated covert research as his only possible method. His account suffers, though, from comparison with Westerland's and a later article by Jipson and Litton where overt research in dangerous contexts seems hardly to have compromised data quantity or quality.

Lee-Treweek and Linkogie define emotional danger as involving serious threat to the "researcher's emotional stability and sense of self" (p.13). Such threats are explored in papers by Gloria Lankshear, Gayle Letherby and Geraldine Lee-Treweek. Lankshear movingly describes how research in a hospital delivery suite re-evoked for her the somewhat traumatic circumstances surrounding the birth of her first child, while Letherby reflects on the impact of studying involuntary childlessness in relation to her own biographical experiences. Lee-Treweek's paper discusses a difficult, stressful and depressing field experience in a nursing home for old people. Each notes the emotional impact of fieldwork, the stresses involved and the professional risks associated with recounting the deeply personal circumstances associated with their research.

In a third set of papers Stephanie Linkogie, Jipson and Litton, and John Gabriel recount how the decisions researchers make in the field setting can generate unwelcome repercussions. Some groups, for example, dislike how they are portrayed in academic writing and have reacted accordingly. Jipson and Litton note that studying certain groups can lead colleagues to assume one is a supporter or sympathiser. From the perspective of a white researcher studying anti-racism, Gabriel points out, that research topics can have political resonances which make them unpopular in certain quarters. Finally, although he rather glosses over the legal issues involved and the possibility of giving students 'zoo-like' experiences, Jeff Peterson describes teaching strategies that take students into what might be thought of as hazardous contexts. Reflecting on these activities also allows him to explore how the social meanings of danger shift with cultural familiarity.

I would have liked rather more explicit discussion of the implications for the management and supervision research practice than is found in the book. The book also largely ignores field-staffed organisations. Survey interviewers (almost all of whom are women) often face physical and emotional risks during fieldwork. Perhaps being 'hired hands' their work is seen as less glamourous than that of ethnographers, and thus less worthy of consideration. Finally, some rather obvious problems attend the editors' definition of emotional danger. How serious is serious? Does one have to be clinically depressed, for example? Does deferred gratification figure in the emotional equation? Unlike those studied, researchers leave the field and gain extrinsic rewards for their labours. Is the brief but intense terror of being caught in a bomb blast or in crossfire (to take instances from my own experience) more emotionally 'dangerous' than the depressing routine of an intractable field situation? Notice, too, the assumption that emotional danger is direct and immediate. (I only understood some of the emotional dynamics of my first field experience years later coming to terms with the death of my father.) The problem with the accounts given here doesn't lie in their personal, individual or emotional character but in an often flatly naturalistic form that encourages ironization from psychoanalytic, institutionalist or 'calibrationist' perspectives. Such ironization challenges an appeal to pathos which reinforces romanticist and heroicist assumptions about fieldwork that seem implicated in the rather grim accounts of doctoral research contained within this book.

Despite my reservations about some of its conceptual innovations, I found this is an interesting and lively collection which is well worth reading. It ranges over a wide variety of settings, contexts and experiences, and makes a number of useful and thought provoking points. Anyone facing a dangerous, difficult or stressful fieldwork experience will find it useful.

Raymond M. Lee
Royal Holloway University of London

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