The Risks of Doing Research That Has Impact


The pragmatic desire to ensure that research, especially social science research, has ‘impact’, that is consequences for those outside the research community, is growing priority for funding agencies (although it is curiously absent from the arcane realms of elementary particle physics and cosmology). There the view seems to be that enriching the understanding of those in the know of how the universe works is all that is needed. Yet difference between the vast resources given to those in ‘heavy’ science and the minimal funding of social science, together with the demands of ‘relevance’ and significance for the latter, also undervalues the special challenges that social scientists face if their research is to be useful.

Contemporary Social Science is the journal of Britain’s Academy of Social Science.

For social science to have impact it must, at some point, engage with what people actually do outside of the relatively safe corridors and laboratories of academic institutions. Once researchers do step outside into what is often characterised as ‘the real world’ they are faced with challenges that natural scientists never have to cope with. These range from challenging potential conflicts of interest, to emotional upheavals and on to real physical danger.

I have been made particularly aware of these challenges in a recent issue of Contemporary Social Science (13/3-4) guest editedby Monique Marks at Durban University of Technology and Julten Abdelhalim at Berlin’s Humbolt University. The contributions they bring together show that as the benefits and opportunities for social science research become more apparent in developing countries – the Global South- a new generation of researchers are emerging. Perhaps because they are moving between different intellectual cultures, these typically young female scholars seem to be more alert to the challenges they face in carrying out their studies than is apparent in academic journals. They are more open and honest about the conflicts inherent in their research experiences.

In the great majority of scholarly publications the threats and traumas of carrying out research are never mentioned. Yet there are many environments that are often politically and socially unstable, frequently dangerous, and where the participants in studies do not belong to a culture of questionnaires and surveys. This collection of personal accounts from Africa, China, Brazil, Egypt, India, Kenya, Pakistan and Yemen therefore provide a rare insight to the struggles that are at the heart of field work in risky environments. They demonstrate that the conventional ethical frameworks, so beloved by academic ethics boards, do not allow for the need to make difficult decisions whilst involved in collecting data, to improvise on the spot and to overcome the characteristic messiness of the ‘real world’ when out there studying it. Ethical procedures set up for the tidily artificial world of the experimental laboratory are just not ‘fit for purpose’ when applied to explorations in risky places.

The limitations of ‘ethics approval’ processes are highlighted by Aastha Tyagi from the University of Delhi. A Hindu herself, she demonstrates that in her participant observation at a Hindu nationalist women’s group camp, there are aspects of her experience that go far beyond the issues considered in the quiet groves of academe. As she puts it “interacting directly with members of the organisation who breathe hatred to certain ideas and people, every minute becomes a struggler for neutrality.” As a declared feminist, Tyagi felt guilt that she could not feel any camaraderie with the women with whom she was interacting. She concludes that recognising the conflict this guilt encapsulates is essential for her research to be of value.

Although Tyagi reduced the physical risks to herself by hiding her true feelings about the ideas her participants expressed, in other contexts the risks are clearly present for participants as well as the researchers. E. Ashley Wilson from Washington University in St Louis calls this “bidirectional risk.” She describes the processes she used in her study in a Kibera slum in Nairobi to reduce the risks to herself and to those she was studying. At the heart of this was to involve the community directly in the study. Members of the informal settlement were even encouraged to influence the research questions and project development.

Reducing the risk to participants more than the researcher is emphasised by Angela Leggett, from the Free University of Berlin, in her study of Chinese NGOs and related corporate environmental responsibilities. She echoes Tyagi’s claim that a feminist stance that attempts to reduce asymmetries between interviewer and interviewee and encourages an empathetic approach to the whole research paradigm is an important way of managing risks for all concerned. This, she argues, reduces those risks, whilst still inevitably producing internal conflicts and feelings of guilt within the researcher.

These complexities are emphasised in the unusual study by Goedele De Clerk and Sam Lutalo-Kiingi in which they examine the experiences of deaf Ugandans. They illustrate “the constant and intricate balancing of academic responsibility, the well-being of the community, and the interests of the other players.” The risk of violence is greater in Karachi than Uganda, but Sarwat Viquar draws out similar issues to those experienced by researchers in many other dangerous places. She confronts these by considering how the consequences of her own gender and ethnicity elucidate the very issues she is studying. This allows an open subjectivity which provides a fresh perspective on what is being studied.

Those operating in other overtly dangerous contexts, such as Julten Adelhalim, in her study of citizenship in Cairo, and Andreza Aruska de Souza Santos’s study of the drug trade and consumption in Brazil, also illustrate how the balance between a phenomenological involvement in the study context and an objective neutrality, creates emotional stress. For although this can be rewarding by revealing aspects of the context not available by other means, it can be a high price to pay if not carefully managed.  As the guest editors of this revealing collection summarise in their excellent introductory overview, “in the global south …research practice needs to be conceived as nuanced and culturally sensitive, breaking with universalised claims about ethics and methodologies.” Careful consideration, though, reveals that this applies to all social science that connects with people in their natural habitat, even if those settings are not overtly risky. Certainly, studies in prisons, amongst gangs, in health care and many industrial settings, for example provoke similar personal challenges that require overt examination. This selection of studies is therefore a clarion call to reconsider approaches to research that are intended to have an ‘impact,’ providing many detailed examples of the issues that need to be addressed.


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David Canter

Professor David Canter, the internationally renowned applied social researcher and world-leading crime psychologist, is perhaps most widely known as one of the pioneers of "Offender Profiling" being the first to introduce its use to the UK.

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