Post by Ines Hasselberg, postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford. This post is the final instalment of the Border Criminologies Themed Week on Research Methodologies, organised by Prof Mary Bosworth

This week, Border Criminologies is launching a research forum to discuss the challenges of conducting field research on border control.  We hope it will foster open, frank, and supportive discussion. In this post, I reflect on the importance of this forum (and any other such initiatives) to researchers and practitioners in the field of border control.

I will start with an event that illustrates why such initiatives are significant to many researchers. Last summer, at the European Association of Social Anthropology (EASA) 2014 conference, Carolina Sanchez Boe and I convened a panel entitled Prison Ethnographies, Research Intimacies and Social Change. With this panel we wanted to discuss and reflect on the particular challenges of conducting anthropological studies in and of prison establishments. The idea was to explore the dynamics of intimacy and collaboration in prison ethnographies while paying particular attention to matters of positionality, access, and personal engagement. Much to our surprise, as we believed there was a current lack of general interest in such matters (after all, almost no one is writing about them!), the panel generated much attention. In fact, we received a very large number of submissions, many of which regarded research carried out not in prisons but in other sites of confinement such as immigration detention centres, psychiatric institutions, and house arrest. Those researchers felt there was no other space for them to present and so we opened up the scope of the panel from the start. As the panel unfolded, it became clear from the presentations and discussions that the difficulties in researching such practices and institutions of confinement meant that researchers go through specific pains and ethical dilemmas. It was felt that there was not a space to voice and share these concerns and obtain peer support and often much needed advice―there were calls for setting up a network of support and ultimately the EASA Anthropology of Confinement Network was created to that end.

Here at Border Criminologies we have been debating similar issues for the past couple of years. But when it comes to the study of border control, issues of access, method, and ethics are not limited to institutions of confinement (as prisons and immigration detention centres) but expand to other institutions of border control and civil society, as well as to other spheres of private and public domains. Furthermore, as Barak Kalir so pertinently pointed out to me not long ago, researching border control often means researching not just practices but processes: processes of illegality, deportability, securitization, criminalisation, and so on. But what methods may be deployed in the study of processes? And can one access the many sites, actors, and temporalities that are often part of it?

In my own doctoral research on the deportation of foreign-national offenders in the UK, it was clear from the start that deportation was not an event but a process that begins far before foreign nationals are forcibly removed from one country to another, and that extends past it. In researching deportation I was faced with the daunting question of how to carry out field research in a setting where there was nothing immediately available to observe and no one identifiable to talk to. Experiencing deportability often renders migrants immobile and invisible. On the one hand, deportable migrants might develop strategies of active invisibility in an effort to avoid authorities. On the other, the increasing use of administrative detention and the criminalisation of immigration offences results in an ever-growing number of foreign nationals under penal or administrative incarceration―sites that are difficult for researchers to access. Furthermore, deportation is a process that spans along time and crosses borders, institutions, and social relations―what Heike Drotbohm and myself have termed as the deportation corridor. In what ways can such a process be grasped in a comprehensive way?

Whereas matters of methodology are definitely something to contend with when researching practices and institutions of border control, there are many other challenges to applied research. Access, positionality, informed consent, researching vulnerable populations, are all complicated. So, too, is the emotional burden of scholarly investigation. How do you manage your frustration when you are not granted access to the institution you sought to study? How do you ease your anxiety when the intended subjects of your research refuse to talk to you? What space is there to discuss your ethical dilemmas if you find yourself doing undercover research or have to breach the confidentiality of a respondent? Who can you talk to when you find a research participant was violently killed under custody? What course of action should you take when the people you’ve been interviewing tell you they are suffering from systematic verbal and physical abuse from their ‘caretakers’? Where do you go for help when you feel it is all too much to handle?

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What may be an obvious answer to someone on the outside may appear as a maze to those who are immersed in a research field that is already emotionally straining. Let’s not forget also that field research can be, and often is, a very isolating and even traumatic experience. The presentations of the EASA panel that I mentioned above showed precisely how often researchers find themselves both wary of revealing to their peers their ethical dilemmas (often in fear of judgement) or ashamed of showing the emotional tension they are going through on account of being systematically exposed to violence, injustice, or the pain of others (see this week’s post by Shlomit Weiss-Dagan on secondary traumatization). With an increasing number of researchers focusing on matters of border control, and the social media tools available to us today, there is no need to deal with the pains and frustrations of field research on our own.

It is against this backdrop that Border Criminologies has created a forum where these and other related questions may be addressed, free of judgement, by your own peers. It is a place where you can share your experiences, seek advice and support, or simply have your peers hear (or in this case read) what you are going through. We invite you register to the forum and we encourage you to participate in it, either with your own questions or in addressing your peers’ concerns.

To access the Forum please click here.

Themed Week on Research Methodologies:

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Hasselberg, I. (2015) Oh the Pains, Frustrations, and Dilemmas of Field Research! If Only We Could Share Them…. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/pains-of-field-research/ (Accessed [date])