Post by Alice Gerlach, DPhil student at the Centre for Criminology. Her collaboratively funded ESRC-HMIP DPhil focuses on the effectiveness of immigration detention centres in preparing detainees for removal or release.

Safety in fieldwork is, thankfully, something that is taken seriously in my department. Any overseas fieldwork is only undertaken after attending safety in fieldwork seminars and filling in lengthy risk assessment forms. Earlier this year I went on a two-month fieldtrip to Kingston, Jamaica, where I interviewed women deported to Jamaica after spending time in immigration detention in the United Kingdom. I’m still alive, and I didn’t see anything even remotely violent in my time there. I was not mugged, robbed, or threatened. However, the reality of life for many of the women in my study involved very real risks to their safety and wellbeing. How, then, can I be so safe in comparison, and what are the ethical implications of conducting research with participants who aren’t able to access the securities I afford myself?

Conducting fieldwork as a lone, young female, put me into one of the higher ‘risk’ categories of researchers. To ensure my own safety I lived within the secure campus of the University of the West Indies. Armed guards protected the gates and my own flat was covered in grills and, somewhat worryingly, each room came with its own lock. When I left campus I took an expensive taxi to downtown Kingston where I was met by my research assistants. When my interviews were complete these same assistants refused to leave my side until I was back in that taxi and on my way home again. By contrast, the women who agreed to be interviewed were often from the most deprived areas of Kingston. The overwhelming theme of my research there was of chronic deprivation, the perpetual presence of drug economies, and the very real threat of violence. Many of the women I interviewed lived in an unsafe place, I have no doubt of that.

Was I really safe? I havent experienced the violence and instability that plays such a large part in the lives of the women in my study. I was the constant recipient of catcalls and ‘requests’ for my number or time to which a polite ‘no’ meant little. These advances were, unfortunately, sometimes from those responsible for my safety: campus security staff escorting me home at night, and even a truck full of police officers, for example. But none of these encounters made me feel truly threatened, and always ended with my walking away to the relative safety of my destination. As these were the only true instances of threat I felt, I think the answer to my opening question in this paragraph is yes, I was safe. However, my safety was only assured because I’m privileged and was able to control my safety through social and financial capital. This isnt something the women in the study were able to do.    

This is where I raise the question of ethics in research such as my own. My research is conducted under the ethical guidelines of the Central University Research Ethics Committee. As such, informed consent, voluntary participation, anonymity, and the like are fundamental in the way I carried out the interviews. I’ve been particularly careful of the principle of doing no harm, possibly to the detriment of the findings, as I was unwilling to delve into aspects of women’s lives when I felt I may start an emotional conversation that I’d be unable to safely manage. Women were compensated for their time with me, and I provided a travel grant to ensure they could travel home safely. Many of the women I spoke with told me they felt better as a result of the interview, that they felt a weight off their shoulders. My dilemma, then, wasn’t if I had caused harm by the interview, but whether it was ethical to interview such a population at all.

I could argue that the safety of the populations I interview aren’t something that I can control. I could argue that my research has the potential to make a difference in the lives of women in the same position as those I have interviewed. Conversely, I could argue that it’s unethical to interview a population when you’d never be able to assure their safety and wellbeing post-interview. I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer to this conundrum. But what I do know is that I went to Jamaica anxious for my own safety, and left concerned for the wellbeing of those I left behind.

I’ve been home, tucked safely in my Oxbridge bed, for a couple of months now. Looking back, I think that I did everything I could to ensure the safety of the women who participated in my research. I cannot reroute the life trajectories of the women I interviewed to a safer space, just as I cannot fully ensure the safety of anyone else I know. What I can do is highlight why women are unsafe and hope that this plays some part in helping those who need it. My conclusion, then, is that we shouldn’t avoid conducting research with vulnerable populations. The findings are important and can make a real difference. However, as much as possible must be done to ensure the safety of all involved for the duration of the project, not just that of the researcher.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Gerlach, A. (2015) From The Field: Safety in Fieldwork for the Researcher and the Participants. Available at: (Accessed [date]).