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In the forty-eighth number of Antropologicheskij forum / Forum for Anthropology and Culture, published by the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera) of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the European University, St Petersburg, and the European Humanities Research Centre, University of Oxford, our ‘Forum’ (written round-table) will address the question of dangers in fieldwork. We would like to invite you to respond to the questionnaire below.

You may, as you wish, directly address the questions presented here, or send in a text responding to one or some of them (or taking up some other issue that seems to you relevant). Whichever way, we would be grateful if you could keep your answers to a maximum of 10 pp. (1.5 spaced, 12-point type). Please use the author-date in-text citation system for any references in the format [Smith 2002: 12], i.e. author/date (no comma) in square brackets, appending a list of ‘References’ at the end with full publication details: Author: e.g. Smith M. A.; Article title: e.g. ‘Visual Anthropology’; Journal title: e.g. Ethnology. 2002. No. 3. Pp. 14–19; or alternatively, Author: e.g. Smith M. A.; Book title: e.g. Visual Anthropology. Place: Publisher, date, pages: e.g. London: Anvil Press, 2002. 356 pp. Please send replies by 15 January 2021 to forum.for.anthropology(), with a copy to catriona.kelly(); your email address should be included in any attached file. We hope that the discussion will appear in the spring of 2021.


Forum 48: The Dangers of the Field: The Researcher’s Perspective

In anthropology, discussions of danger in fieldwork are widespread, but the emphasis is almost always on risks to informants. The vulnerability of researchers themselves tends to be discussed solely in private, forming part of informal exchanges and professional folklore. However, risks exist, and what is more, their nature and categories have been subject to evolution over time. In anthropology’s early years, the key issue was physical survival in an unfamiliar and hostile environment, and anthropologists were advised to take weapons with them for self-defence when they departed for fieldwork expeditions. Once women began entering the profession, sexual harassment and violence became recognised threats (they were also risks for men, of course; the point was, though, that they were far less often openly recognised as such).[1] One way and another, for many years dangers and difficulties were considered an intrinsic part of fieldwork, and overcoming them an indication of professional competence. An anthropologist of the classic era was someone immersed in the study of a particular culture who obtained evidence and insight on the basis of trial and error, sometimes of a distinctly painful kind; and what is more, this painful experience of residing was regarded as a kind of ‘experiment’,  in the course of which ethnographical reality exposed itself more fully to the outsider [Daniels 1983].[2]

In Western anthropology, the turn to reflexivity in the 1980s represented an attempt to restore to anthropologists the chance to be not just a professional but a living person with a right to gender and emotions, and to flaws and mistakes [Gurney 1985; Kulick, Willson 1995]. At approximately the same time, new risks to the anthropologist began to emerge that were related to fieldwork in ‘high status’ situations, where the objects of research enjoy access to far superior resources and opportunities than researchers, and may have recourse to litigation if they object to the research findings (as sociologists from the ‘Second Chicago School’ were to find to their cost).

In recent decades, particularly in the US, a new ‘safety culture’ applying not just to physical but psychological risks has made significant inroads. Added to the transformation of universities into ‘service providers’, rather than academic institutions in the traditional sense, this has generated a division of responsibility between the university itself and researchers associated with it. This process is starting to have an impact on Russian academic life, but in social sciences, safety issues currently receive almost no discussion, so that Russian researchers and educational institutions are guided less by ‘codes of practice’ than by the traditional understanding of ‘common sense’.[3]

American universities attempt to defend both administrators and academic staff with measures over and above those set out in the ethical codes of professional organisations, such as the American Association of Anthropologists [AAA Statement on Ethics 2012]: these include review boards, ethics committees, and the like, which issue permits for research work and refuse to sponsor projects in areas of the world that are considered too dangerous. This is, of course, a way of restricting researchers’ freedom to engage in risk-taking behaviour [Phadke 2005]. The impact of the new safety culture on anthropology as a discipline is underlined by the cases of young anthropologists whose preparation for the field did not give them the resources to cope with dangerous situations and who held their teachers and mentors to blame for giving them an insufficient grasp of project risks [Huang 2016; Evans 2017; Schneider 2020].

A further problem for university administrations can be work in milieux and communities that do not conform to accepted legal norms or represent ‘grey areas’ relative to these. In particular, these relate to the compromises between the perspectives, in one and the same person, of researcher, citizen, and member of a social group – compromises that were formerly conveniently ignored [White 1943; Becker 1963]. Now, however, they may excite scrutiny from the forces of law enforcement and provoke sharp criticism from the professional community itself, as was indeed the case with Alice Goffman’s On the Run [Goffman 2014][4]. In cases like this, universities may gamble with the last vestiges of their autonomy by handing over researchers and their fieldwork data to the police or other state agencies in the effort to avoid legal consequences for themselves (as described in [Khan 2019]). In Russia cases of this kind are quite rare but here too, researchers sometimes work in communities that attract very active interest from the forces of law and order.

Finally, a challenge to researchers is also presented by the fact that their informants now also have a voice, as a result of the ever more collaborative and dialogic nature of anthropology as a discipline.

The result is sometimes not just an indignant refusal to allow access to materials before publication takes place [Schramm 2005], but reputational damage after the fact. In particular, people who have given informed consent to interviews may sometimes publicly repudiate this after having become acquainted with the results of the research (as published in an article, book, or documentary) and decided they do not like these.

The present discussion is intended not only to address the issues raised for field anthropology in a society where hypertrophied safety concerns are ever present, but also to consider different aspects of risk in anthropological fieldwork of the present day.

1. What risks have you yourself encountered in fieldwork? How have you decided which risks you are prepared to run and which you are not? Have there been any cases where you declined to participate in fieldwork after weighing up the risks?

2. Do you discuss issues of risk and danger in the field with your students? Should the university prepare students for risks they may encounter in the field? If so, what form should the preparation take? Do research organisations carry responsibility for the risks that their employees may encounter in the field?

3. Have you encountered morally problematic situations in the field (alcohol, sex, violence, violations of the law etc.) and beyond (e.g. state bureaucracies or corporations taking an interest in your data, criticism from informants)? How did you cope with these situations?

4. Does the researcher have a right to fear and other negative emotions relative to his or her chosen field and informants? Are emotions of this kind compatible with academic research?



AAA Statement on Ethics 2012, <>.

Becker H. S., Outsiders. Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. New York: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1963.

Forum 2: The Research Object and the Subjectivity of the Researcher, Forum for Anthropology and Culture, 2007, no. 4, pp. 10–124.

Forum 5: Fieldwork Ethics, Forum for Anthropology and Culture, 2007, no. 4, pp. 10–124.       

Daniels A. K., ‘Self-Deception and Self-Discovery in Fieldwork’, Qualitative Sociology, 1983, vol. 6, no. 3, pp. 195–214.

Evans A., ‘The Ethnographer's Body Is Gendered’, The New Ethnographer, 2017, February 14, <>.

Goffman A., On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.

Gurney J. N., ‘“Not One of the Guys”: The Female Researcher in a Male-Dominated Setting’, Qualitative Sociology, 1985, vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 42–62.

Huang M., ‘Vulnerable Observers: Notes on Fieldwork and Rape.What Does It Mean to Produce Knowledge through an Experience that Includes Trauma?’, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2016, October 12.

Journal of Gender Studies, 2005, vol. 12, no. 1, pp. 41–62.

Khan S., ‘The Subpoena of Ethnographic Data’, Sociological Forum, 2019, vol. 34, no. 1, pp. 253–263.

Kulick D., Willson M. (eds.), Taboo: Sex, Identity and Erotic Subjectivity in Anhropological Fieldwork. London: Routledge, 1995.

Lewis-Kraus G., ‘The Trials of Alice Goffman’, The New York Times Magazine, 2016, January 12. <>.

Panel Discussion: Author Meets Critics, Northwestern Journal of Law and Social Policy, 2018, vol. 13, no. 3 (“Northwestern Law Interrogating Ethnography Conference”), pp. 107–137.

Phadke S., ‘“You Can Be Lonely in a Crowd”: The Production of Safety in Mumbai’, Indian Journal of Gender Studies, 2005.

Schneider L. T., ‘Sexual Violence during Research: How the Unpredictability of Fieldwork and the Right to Risk Collide with Academic Bureaucracy and Expectations’, Critique of Anthropology, 2020, vol. 40, no. 2, pp. 173–193.

Schramm K., “You Have Your Own History. Keep Your Hands Off Ours!” On Being Rejected in the Field, Social Anthropology, 2005, vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 171–183.

Tannen D., ‘Blame the Victim?’, Anthropology Newsletter, 1986, vol. 27, no. 8.

White W. F., Street Corner Society: The Social Structure of an Italian Slum. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1943.

[1] Not that violence against women was necessarily openly discussed either. The murder by an informant of Henrietta Schmerler, a pupil of Ruth Benedict, sent shock waves through the American anthropological world in 1931, but critical discussion of the case began only 50 years later [Tannen 1986].

[2] For a further discussion of these problems, see Forum for Anthropology and Culture no. 4 (Fieldwork Ethics) and no. 5 (Researching Nationalism and Xenophobia).

[3] This despite the fact that the Ethical Code of the American Anthropological Association was translated as long ago as 2000 and published in the Journal of Sociology and Social Anthropology [Zhurnal sotsiologii i sotsialnoi antropologii] at the time [‘Kodeks etiki’ 2000].

[4] For a journalistic account, see [Lewis-Kraus 2016]; discussion in the profession itself has included  in particular a panel at the Northwestern University conference “Interrogating Ethnography” [Panel Discussion: Author Meets Critics 2018].


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