Ethnography as ‘Risky Business’

By Kees Koonings, Dirk Kruijt, and Dennis Rodgers

13 October, 2019

Ethnography is an inherently rewarding but at the same time ‘risky’ research methodology: ‘high risk, high gain’. It is fraught with uncertainties, practical obstacles, challenges and pitfalls. Ethnographic researchers are unsure (or cannot and should not know beforehand) how it will work out and with what results. Because ethnographic research is relational and interactive it cannot be dissociated from the social process that is studied nor from the personal positions of all agents involved (including the ethnographer). Such uncertainties are clearly heightened in relation to research in conflict or post-conflict situations.

A relatively young but quickly expanding literature has been dealing with the methodological, practical, and ethical implications and consequences of this particular type of ethnographic field. It had to be invented from the ground up. In the early 1990s, Jeff Sluka (1990; 1995) called attention to the consequences of violence and war for conducting ethnographic research, building on Nancy Howell’s (1988) more general survey of the ‘hazards of fieldwork’ (as reported by North American anthropologists). Carolyn Nordstrom and Tony Robben (1995) subsequently published a pioneering and landmark volume, Fieldwork under Fire, which explored how violence and war as lived experiences were intertwined with their ethnographic understanding. More methodological and practical concerns about ethnographic fieldwork in violent and dangerous places were subsequently treated in a more grounded way by Christopher Kovats-Bernat (2002), Rodgers (2007), Daniel Goldstein (2014), and Sluka (2015), among others.

Sluka (2015), in particular, offers a range of general recommendations to managing ethnographic research in violent and dangerous settings. Risks to be taken into account by the ethnographer include not only the protection of self, participant and data, but also being aware of the perception others in the field hold of the position and intent of the researcher (including, for example, whether he or she is a ‘spy’), the problem of being partisan or neutral, and the related risk of being targeted by stakeholders in violence or conflicts (including the formal authorities). Ultimately, though, Sluka concludes that “managing danger in fieldwork should be viewed as a dialogic ongoing process based on an ethical relationship with research participants, which requires recognizing the shifting nature of danger and risk” (Sluka 2015, 120, emphasis in original).

It is very much this kind of more processual and situated approach to ethical ethnographic research in violent and sensitive contexts that emerges from the body of work produced by the successive generations of doctoral researchers supervised by Dirk Kruijt and Kees Koonings in the Department of Anthropology at Utrecht University (the Netherlands), over the past 25 years, and which the volume Ethnography as Risky Business: Field Research in Violent and Sensitive Contexts that we have co-edited, celebrates and showcases.

All of the contributors to this volume have, at some point or another, encountered critical issues, faced dilemmas, and suffered setbacks during the course of their fieldwork. One of the strengths of the group, however, has been its extensive internal communication, even across generations. This produced an accumulated collective wisdom and pool of experiences that have been invaluable in permitting the sustained successful production of ethnographic research over the course of two and a half decades. This volume is in many ways a first attempt at bringing some of these insights together. In line with our suspicion of strict protocols and ‘one size fits all’ solutions, it does not attempt to formally synthesize or extract specific insights, but rather offers a collection of experiences and reflections in the hope that these will provide inspiration to others when they develop their own situated ethical approaches.

Having said this, the contributors’ exploration of ethnography as an inherently risky research strategy, particularly in violent and sensitive contexts, has brought a number of key methodologically and epistemologically issues to the fore. First, risky ethnography complicates the access to and movement in the field and poses considerable challenges for establishing trust and rapport with research participants. The second point is directly related to this. Protection is a crucial concern. We argue that the protection of participants and data takes precedence over the protection of the ethnographer-self because the latter has consciously taken the decision to engage in risky research. Protective concerns range from personal security and careful storage and use of data to strict guarantees of confidentiality and enhanced sensitivity regarding modes of interference in the lives and relations of the research population.

A third set of concerns has to do with the problem of manipulation of positionality and identity in the field. Researchers and participants always have agendas but in dangerous and sensitive settings these may become increasingly pressing. Informants may resort to ethnographic “seduction”, may expect aid brokering from the researcher or may seek to convey political legitimation through participation in ethnographic research. The ethnographer, in turn, has to reflect and act upon the questions of engagement, partisanship, neutrality or complicity. Fourth, risky ethnography enhances the impact of usual fieldwork stressors and will always sharpen the edge of emotions such as fear, grief or doubt that come along with personal and relational research on the nature and consequences of conflict, violence, and danger. In all cases, risky ethnography has a profound impact on the self of the researcher, through discomfort, dreams, doubts, shame, fear, and sometimes trauma – both in and out of the field. Finally, risky ethnography requires careful post-fieldwork procedures, especially in data management and in writing up.

These aspects of risky ethnography, of doing qualitative social scientific research in dangerous fields and on sensitive subjects, appear in different ways in all chapters in this book. But all contributions set forth the stakes of the research subject and setting shaped by conflict, violence, hostility, and distrust. Researchers and informants facing these stakes meet, in varying ways, surveillance, monitoring, suspicion or aggression by authorities, armed actors, and other power players. In particular, all the research projects discussed in the volume show a diversity of violent or contentious political actors set in practices (or at least recent legacies) of suspicion, infiltration, dissidence, paranoia, and double or triple agendas. The complexity of establishing and negotiating access to the field and the research subjects and of defining multiple and always shifting roles within the research setting also transpires in the problem of the personal identity of the ethnographer – and this whether in terms of gender, political alignment, or professional multiplicity – being also a diplomat, consultant, or policy practitioner – as well as generational or ethnic and racial differences. Overall, though, we endorse the position of situational and localized ethics to guide ethnographic research as a reflective and navigational enterprise, rather than adherence to strict codes of ethical conduct within the profession.

It is however perhaps in an epistemological sense that the contributions to this book make their most important collective point. The practice of risky ethnography involves a constant patrolling of moral frontiers that has to balance the necessary intimacy of ethnographic work with an understanding and engagement with broader social issues. It brings to the fore in a visceral and immediate manner the necessity for an engaged social science, one where the actors of the social realities that researchers encounter, investigate, and describe, are not just seen as ‘data points’ situated in broader social structures, but as full partners in the co-production of knowledge. It is this that is ultimately the greatest potential gain of carrying out ‘risky ethnography’, the pay-off of a situated ethics which constitutes ethnography not just as being about studying the world, but very much about being in the world.

Kees Koonings is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Utrecht University.

Dirk Kruijt is Professor Emeritus at Utrecht University

Dennis Rodgers is Research Professor in Anthropology and Sociology at the Graduate Institute – Institut de hautes études internationales et du développement (IHEID)


Goldstein, D. M. 2014. Qualitative Research in Dangerous Places: Becoming an ‘Ethnographer’ of Violence and Personal Safety, DSD Working Papers on Research Security: No. 1, PDF 

Howell, N. 1988. ‘Health and Safety in the Fieldwork of North American Anthropologists.’ Current Anthropology 29(5): 80-87. Link

Kovats-Bernat, J. C. 2002. ‘Negotiating Dangerous Fields: Pragmatic strategies for fieldwork amid violence and terror.’ American Anthropologist 104(1): 208-222. Link

Nordstrom, C.  and A.C.G.M. Robben, eds. 1995. Fieldwork under Fire. Contemporary Studies of Violence and Survival. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rodgers, D. 2007. ‘Joining the Gang and Becoming a Broder : The Violence of Ethnography in Contemporary Nicaragua.’ Bulletin of Latin American Research 26(4): 444–461. Link

Sluka, J.A. 1990. ‘Participant Observation in Violent Social Contexts.’ Human Organization 49(2): 114-126. Link

Sluka, J.A. 1995. ‘Reflections on Managing Danger in Fieldwork: Dangerous Anthropology in Belfast.’ In C. Nordstrom and A.C.G.M. Robben, eds. Fieldwork under Fire. Contemporary Studies of Violence and Survival. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 276-294.

Sluka, J. A. 2015. ‘Managing Danger in Fieldwork with Perpetrators of Political Violence and State Terror.’ Conflict and Society: Advances in Research 1: 109–124. Link

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