New Initiatives Fund: Talking about Fieldwork Risk & Safety

This is a guest post written by Joanne Neary who is part of the Institute of Health and Wellbeing. In this post Joanne discusses how the New Initiatives Fund was used to run a workshop about fieldwork risk and safety.



Walking to the door of a participant’s home, I could feel my heart rate start to increase. I’d spoken to them on the phone, but I’d never seen their face. I wondered if I had the right home, or if I was going to be turned away. Sometimes if they weren’t home, I would make the long journey back to my car, frustrated and worried about the delay this will cause my fieldwork. I was a lone researcher conducting fieldwork for my PhD on children’s experiences of regeneration. I had taken classes on the theory behind qualitative methods, and could have told you some excellent books about how to structure semi-structured interviews. My study passed ethical clearance from the University, nothing in my questions or study was seen to be harmful. My department provided all lone fieldworkers with a security phone, and required us to log-in and out of all visited addresses when conducting interviews. These phones also had a panic setting that would alert a central contact centre that you required assistance. But, as I walked up the stairs of a high-rise flat, past smashed glass and graffiti, I wondered if I’d missed a class on harm reduction techniques, or whether I was being too sensitive. 

Often, in qualitative research training, there is often a lack of recognition and understanding for the emotional and physical risks that researchers may face in the field. While there exists a literature reflecting on the gendered aspects of risk (Wheeler and Chiswell, 2016), the need for understanding both physical and emotional safety of researchers (Williamson and Burns, 2014), forming and leaving research relationships and coping with researcher exhaustion (Dickson-Swift et al, 2007); this is often ignored in graduate researcher training. Instead the onus lies of the researcher to either learn by doing, or through the horror stories told by colleagues.

Inspired by this silence in training schemes, myself, Lisa Bradley, and Anna Tarrant (who has blogged previously on this subject), we applied to the New Initiative Fund to host a workshop which enabled PhDs and Early Career Researchers (ECRs) from various Scottish Universities (including Glasgow Caledonian, Strathclyde, Stirling, Edinburgh, and Glasgow) to come together and share their fieldwork experiences. It was aimed at researchers who were predominately based in social science disciplines, and were conducting primary research using interviews, or focus groups with members of the public. The aim of the workshop was to provide a safe and supportive space to acknowledge the impact of research on the wellbeing of researchers, and sought to discuss methods to keep researchers safe.

The day involved presentations from PhD and ECRs (Early Career Researchers), and a panel of experienced qualitative researchers (Andrea Williamson from GPPC, Sally Brown from University of Edinburgh, and Fiona McHardy from Poverty Analysis, and Rob Hadley from University of Keele), and small group discussions. The group discussions raised a range of issues: dealing with personally traumatic research topics, negotiating the power dynamics between interviewer and participant, safety concerns of going into people’s homes, and how we protect ourselves after a stressful interview.

Fieldworker safety workshop
Group discussion at the Fieldwork safety workshop.  Joanne Neary 2016

The need for support was a major emergent theme of the day and was identified as especially important for individuals in departments where there is either a low level of collegiality/high level of working at home (rather than in the department), or where they find themselves conducting lone research. Others suggested that it is easier to approach more senior staff with practical problems (e.g. where to get Dictaphones), rather than emotional or personal issues experienced in the field. Some suggested that this was because they were worried about looking vulnerable in front of their supervisor, and their belief that their supervisor expected them to manage their own emotions and to get on with the job at hand. This thought echoed several of the presentations, and the perception that researchers should be seen as cold and objective data collectors, rather than as people who may react differently in the field.

One of the worrying things from the group was that in some departments, in several universities, there was no lone-worker policy, which meant researchers were ‘trusted’ to do research in the field without any safety guidelines or precautions in place. Therefore, the group focused on creating some guidelines as to how best to support fieldworkers, before, during, and after interviews have been conducted. These summarised the group’s own learnings in the field, either mistakes they had learned from, or the knowledge that was passed down to them from more senior researchers. This covered managing sensitive disclosures, coping with burn-out, and safety concerns about working alone. The group tried to suggest advice both for the researcher and also the departments, to ensure safe working practices were being adopted. These guidelines can be found in a separate blog post (coming soon).


Dickson-Swift, V., James, E.L., Kippen, S., Liamputtong, P. (2007) Risk to researchers in qualitative research on sensitive topics: issues and strategies Qualitative Health Research,  18(1) 133-44

Wheeler, R. and Chiswell, H. M. (2016) “As long as you’re easy on the eye”: Reflecting on issues of positionality and researcher safety during farmer interviews, Area (online early view)

Williamson, A. E. and Burns, N. (2014) The safety of researchers and participants in primary care qualitative research, British Journal of General Practice,   64 (621): 198–200.

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