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

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

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.

Source: Social Science Space

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