Here at Border Criminologies we think a lot about the methodology of researching border control. Some of the issues that arise are obvious: language differences, cultural expectations, research access. Others are perhaps less self-evident. One of them, which is rarely discussed in the literature, is the vicarious trauma experienced by field researchers. By vicarious trauma, we mean the deleterious effects of being exposed to participants’ descriptions of traumatic experiences, and to the research environments (e.g., immigration removal centres) themselves.

Visits Hall, Colnbrook IRC (Photo: M. Bosworth)
By thinking about the impacts of vicarious trauma on field researchers, we are by no means discounting the histories and experiences of those subject to border control. As field researchers with access to immigration removal centres, we're privileged individuals. We can come and go as we please. We have access to ‘hidden’ worlds that are often talked about but rarely ‘seen,’ except by those who are detained or work there. Yet, to remain silent about the impact of the research on researchers is to further the pretention that research is unfeeling, oblivious to varying contexts, the emotions and experiences of participants, the stresses and tensions of custodial environments, or to thorny questions of morality and ethics.

In her two year project on immigration detention, Mary Bosworth experienced a series of unpleasant emotions and physical reactions while she was in the field: palpitations, insomnia, anxiety, and depression. These lasted for about a year after the project finished, making it difficult to analyse the fieldwork diaries and transcripts, slowing the process of publication and analysis.

Mary also felt guilty and inadequate. It was hard to avoid a sense of complicity in the process of border control, particularly since, at the time, she too was a migrant in the process of obtaining indefinite leave to remain and then British citizenship. She felt starkly aware of the inequities (and expense) of the process of legal admission and acceptance; sensitive to the sometimes contradictory emotions and feelings of home inherent in setting up a new life in a foreign country.

Sarah Turnbull is experiencing similar challenges in her current project on immigration detention. She is also a foreigner, yet one with a Canadian passport and on a work visa sponsored by the University of Oxford. As such, her right to be in the UK isn't precarious. Currently finishing up fieldwork at Yarl's Wood IRC, Sarah has undertaken research at a time when the institution is frequently in the media and a target of regular community-based protests. This brings with it additional challenges, of managing staff and detainees' suspicions and emotions, as well as her own feelings of sadness and helplessness.

Origami swan made in Campsfield House IRC (Photo: S. Turnbull)
Although the perspectives and feelings of researchers seem unimportant in relation to those subject to border control, as scholars in an emerging field of inquiry, with students who are commencing projects of their own, these are issues we need to acknowledge and address. One method that seems particularly helpful is to conduct research in pairs. Sharing the field can help deflect the trauma of others, while talking over it afterwards can help manage unpleasant feelings that surface.

Maintaining detailed field notes can also enable researchers to express their feelings, although after long days of holding them in, it can be difficult to release them onto paper. We're finding that regular conversations among individuals who have spent time in these facilities or in other border control posts is also helpful. All too often conversations about these places with others who have no experience of them become awkward. There's a sense in which people don’t want to know. Too much detail and they become uneasy, changing the subject, looking upset themselves.

Drawing on insights of feminist researchers, it's also important to give up the fallacy of the unattached, impartial, objective researcher―the fly on the wall who observes, yet feels nothing. Talking about and thinking through methodologies that consider the affective elements of doing research helps makes sense of messy fieldwork sites where the lines between researcher and researched are blurry, disorienting, and unsettling. In doing so, we are reminded how our own subject positions and identities impact on the research process, requiring us to consider how our ‘selves’ enter into and shape how we experience and carry out our research.

While fieldwork of any kind is difficult, these sites feel more emotional, confusing, and upsetting than most. As such, they may require innovative techniques to assist researchers make sense of them without being too damaged. We would be very interested in hearing from others who have experienced similar challenges. How have you managed the painful nature of researching border control?

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See also other recent From the Field mini-posts: