Safety Issue in Doing Fieldwork

One of the major concerns in doing a fieldwork is about the safety issue. Since Jeffrey A. Sluka (1995) argued that even today when we think the world is a much safer place compared to the past, ethnographic fieldwork is still a dangerous task especially if research is conducted in a conflict area. The conflict itself is not always related to war or revolution, but can also be formed as sociopolitical conflicts. Many ethnographers who have been conducting these kinds of fieldwork became victims since they failed to calculate the possibility of the dangers of the study.

Neil L. Whitehead (2002) once studied a dangerous area when he was doing ethnography of kanaimà in Guyana. While he was interested in understanding this dark shamanic practice within the culture, he also experienced the threat of kanaimà where it almost took his life. However, rather than to argue what he experienced as something to be avoided, he believed it was inevitable. He said that the threat was part of the unforeseen consequences of his close engagement with the informants (Whitehead, 2002).

While maintaining a close relationship with informants resulted in an advantage for the study, it also influenced the objectivity of the researcher. In a conflict situation, sometimes it requires the ethnographer to take sides with one of the groups that are involved in the conflict. June Nash (1976) explained when she worked on her study about tin-miners groups in the revolution era in Bolivia, she had to take their side. Additionally, she claimed that it was not possible to remain neutral. The consequence was she had to face threats from the ‘government agency’ and even was suspected as a spy. While she was concerned about her own safety, she was also afraid that her data during the fieldwork would jeopardize the safety of the informants. Therefore, to be able to calculate the risk and to be prepared for any possibilities remained important.

Similarly, Sluka’s (1995) involvement in combat zones during political unrest in Northern Ireland forced him to consider his own safety while at the same time he had to be able not to disclosure his informants’ names since it was risking their life. He kept close to them but at the same time he realized that too much attachment with them would attract the government agency or policemen.

Meanwhile, Cynthia Keppley Mahmood (2008) faced another extreme hazard when she was interested in studying the Sikhs separatist movement in India. She was attacked, insulted and raped by anonymous men, who she suspected to be policemen not a long time after she consulted with her Indian colleague about the research topic and got a reply that the theme was “not interesting.” She considered the incident as a threat for her when she realized later that the topic was forced to be muted by the majority in India. Even though she got injuries, she survived and learned about the case differently. She considered anthropology as “A spiritual journey and political commitments as well as a science, art, and profession” (Mahmood, 2008).

Sluka (1995) suggested that to avoid the potential hazards for the ethnographers, some considerations have to be underlined during or even before a researcher conducts the study. First, an ethnographer should try to identify the possible hazards. It is always helpful to discuss the possibilities of danger with colleagues.

Second, not knowing the source of funding of the research not only might impact our study but also could place us in a dangerous situation. Some people might be suspicious about the sponsor and then identify the researcher as a spy. Related to this issue, British Association of Social Anthropologist criticized the Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program launched by CIA to fund ethnography researches in order to gather data for intelligence’s purpose (, June 2, 2005). Not only ruining the credibility of the field, it also created a possibility to harm both people studied and ethnographer. A few decades ago, Michel Foucault (1980) wrote that the power tends to control knowledge and vice versa. This means that knowledge such as anthropology is always difficult to be excluded from the power structure that always tries to control its practices. Even though I do not agree with such intelligence’s funded studies, I do not believe that we can accept anthropology as a ‘pure knowledge’ especially if some scholars still argue that anthropology is a colonial project.

Third, while being honest in doing the fieldwork, flexibility also remains important in avoiding the possibility of danger within the observation process. Moreover, to keep the field notes and recording in the safest place should always be remembered by ethnographer. Finally, a danger within the fieldwork might simply occur due to bad luck no matter how prepared the researcher is in calculating the possibilities.

While Nash (1976) argued that the participant-observer perspective is being challenged, is it always a good idea to be deeply involved with our subjects’ world? Moreover, since ethnography might do harm to the ethnographer, I wonder if it is a wise idea to chose a conflict situation as the research topic? I know that some ethnographers considered these conflict situations merely as a challenge or even an adventure, is it worthy to gain a high quality research while it might cost a human life? I believe that ethnography works could give empowerment to the research subjects, but I do not believe this empowerment is worth much by sacrificing human life.


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