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Safety in Social Research
Dr Gary Craig is Professor of Social Justice at the University of Hull. Drs Anne Corden and Patricia Thornton are Senior Research Fellows at SPRU, University of York.
Written comments on the proposed Safety Code can be sent to Gary Craig at CASS, University of Hull, Hull, HU6 7RX or to the Social Research Association at email@example.com.
There is raised awareness of the dimensions of risk that may be associated with professional situations which involve close social interaction between people in a private setting. People who work in this way include doctors, solicitors, officers of local and central government, teaching staff, insurance and estate agents. Depending on the particular situation, there are various components of risk for the professionals involved:
Risk is carried on both sides, however. The person receiving the professional service may also be at risk of physical harm or abuse, or in danger of being exploited, frightened or psychologically harmed. Not all professional people behave properly, and some are inadequately trained to deal with the situations they encounter.
If the professional person has an employer or manager, they should understand the risks involved on both sides, consider the balance of responsibilities, and act or intervene to protect employees and their clients.
Several professions are developing or already have guidance or codes of practice for their staff, to help maintain their own personal safety. The social work professions guidance for members has to take account of issues such as potential allegations of child abuse and apparently increasing levels of physical attacks against social workers (see for example the Campaign for Safety in Social Work promoted by the magazine Community Care throughout 1999). Many teaching and higher education professional bodies now provide guidance to their members (see for example the Association of University teachers circular LA/5674, February 1996).
A major contribution has come from the work of the Suzie Lamplugh Trust, established after the disappearance and presumed murder of Suzie Lamplugh when she was working as an estate agent. This charity publishes a guide for employees (Suzie Lamplugh Trust n.d.) which has been widely influential.
It is perhaps surprising that there has not been wider discussion about issues of personal safety within the social research profession. Social research often requires researchers to work on their own, and interviewers involved both in survey work and qualitative enquiry are often engaged in one-to-one relationships, usually conducted in private situations. The topics of enquiry may be sensitive and invoke strong feelings among those people participating (Lee 1993).
The authors have contributed to the development of framework codes of conduct for their own social research units to help to protect the safety of their staff. Kenyon and Hawker (2000) uggested that a set of guidelines might be helpful, and argued for further discussion around this topic. Such ideas are reflected in a small but developing literature on the subject within and outside the UK (Arksey and Knight 1999; Paterson et al. 1999).
Another tricky issue is when does fieldwork start and finish? Fieldwork may involve travelling, and using a private car may be the only option, or the safest choice, for researchers in remote or potentially dangerous contexts. Not all universities have insurance policies which cover the use of private cars for travel to work, however. If a private car is used, who is responsible for meeting the costs of damage in the event of accident, or violence done to the vehicle? More generally, are researchers insured for personal injury in all situations related to the conduct of fieldwork? These issues may be particularly pertinent for researchers studying phenomena at the boundaries of criminality; working with potentially higher risk groups such as ex-offenders or people with a history of psychological disturbance, or simply exploring issues where the threat of violence is greater, for example, working across sectarian divides, or studying homophobic violence.
It is clear that there are a number of hard decisions to make. The next step is how to implement the decisions. Managers or employers can put in place some elements of safety with written guidelines; provision of safety aids; and procedures by which fieldwork can be monitored. However, the amount of control which can be reasonably exercised over a researcher in the field may be limited. A code of safety may be brought to the researchers attention within the contractual framework of their employment, but much more may need to be done to encourage staff to remember and use the guidelines. Ways of making such guidelines stick will include general awareness raising at various levels. Safety issues should feature in the training of all new research staff, and be included in induction packs or staff handbooks. More experienced staff may be among those who are prepared to take greater risks and there will be a need for continued reminders and reinforcement throughout a researchers career. Supervisors may need to take staff through procedures and remind them, with each new bout of fieldwork. There may be a role for University Safety Officers, or outside bodies such as the Suzie Lamplugh Trust advisers, to visit research units occasionally to bring fresh perspectives and maintain interest in issues. It will always be important to remind research staff that if they ignore their employers procedures and policies for health and safety at work, they may be considered negligent should an incident occur.
Unexpected or unpleasant situations may arise for the researcher, however, even when they are following guidelines, and the effects of physical or emotional violence or the threat of violence may be traumatic. There is need to consider how far employers have responsibility to ensure availability of suitable debriefing, stress counselling or therapeutic help after bad experiences, and how research units might access such professional help. Safety must also be considered from the perspective of research respondents. Ethical guidelines developed variously by the Social Research Association (SRA 1999), the British Sociological Association (BSA undated), and other professional bodies, remind researchers of the need to protect the interests of potential respondents. This includes respect for privacy, ensuring informed consent and confidentiality, and awareness of the possibilities of doing harm. Ethical considerations, however, sometimes emerge in complicated ways. One of the authors conducted research with children where it was possible that undisclosed child abuse might be revealed. Interviewers had to protect themselves and the integrity of their research and at the same time make it clear to the children that they would not remain inactive if they thought anyone was in danger.
According to the SRA ethical guidelines the principle of informed consent is ... an expression of belief in the need for truthful and respectful exchanges between social researchers and human subjects. There are in reality no firm safeguards in place to prevent respondents from exploitation by researchers and it may be appropriate to consider whether some form of professional accreditation would be an appropriate move in this direction. This might offer the possibility of sanctions against manipulative or deceitful behaviour on the part of researchers but would be unlikely to prevent other more oppressive forms of abuse.
Additional subtle issues of culture arise, including the use of body language, the way researchers dress, and the acceptability or not of physical contact. Researchers may inadvertently increase the risks to themselves associated with the research. GPs have been offered advice about unsafe territory (Sandell 1998) but researchers are often left to rely on their own judgement or intuition in arranging and conducting an interview. The quality of much social research depends on establishing the appropriate distance between researcher and respondent - a distance neither over-familiar nor too detached. It may not always be easy, even with prior briefing, to know what that distance should be.
Arksey, H. and Knight, P. (1999) Interviewing for Social Scientists, London: Sage.
BSA (undated) Statement of Ethical Practice, British Sociological Association.
Kenyon, E. and Hawker, S. (2000) Once would be enough: some reflections on the issue of safety for lone researchers, International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 2, 4, 313-27.
Lee, R.M. (1993) Doing Research on Sensitive Topics, London: Sage.
Paterson, B., Gregory, D. and Thorne, S. (1999) A protocol for researcher safety, Qualitative Health Research, 9, 2, 259-69.
Sandell, A. (1998) Oxford Handbook of Patients Welfare: a doctors guide to benefits and services, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
SRA (1999) Social Research Association Ethical Guidelines, Appendix B in SRA Directory of Members, London: Social Research Association.
Suzie Lamplugh Trust (undated) Personal Safety at work: guidance for all employees
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Edited by Nigel Gilbert.
Summer 2000 © University of Surrey
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