Some years ago, I was gathering interviews for a project on Italian feminism. At one point I contacted a feminist association in Milan, which was running a crowd funding campaign for the launch of a women’s centre. I interviewed one of the project’s promoters, and at the end she gently suggested that I could perhaps use some of my funds to support their cause. I tried to explain, somewhat embarrassed, that grant money is meant to cover research costs and expenses only, and I half promised to apply for some other grant, knowing it would never come through.
In about the same period Giulio Regeni, a doctoral student from Cambridge University, went missing in Cairo. It was the fifth anniversary of the uprising against Hosni Mubarak. I instantly got a bad feeling. Students rarely go missing like this, don’t they? A few days later his corpse – showing signs of torture – was found on the outskirts of Egypt’s capital.
Twenty-eight-year-old Regeni was conducting research on Egyptian trade unions and labour rights when he was targeted by Egyptian intelligence services. The local head of the street vendors’ union, who acted as Regeni’s guide during his field research, alerted authorities to his research project. Clearly it covered a sensitive topic. When he vanished, Regeni was being monitored by Egypt’s National Security Agency, and it is likely they are behind his assassination.
The idea that a Cambridge doctoral student found his death in such a horrible way profoundly distressed me. All the more so because he was reported to the authorities for economic reasons; Regeni’s guide, in exchange for advice and assistance in contacting people to interview, had demanded money. More precisely, he had asked Regeni to give him grant money in order to pay for medical treatments. The Italian researcher replied that he couldn’t use his grant money in this way. He offered, instead, to apply for an activist grant from a non-profit organization – apparently enough to be branded as a spy.
The incident reminded me of the fact that, as scholars, we run risks when doing fieldwork research, often without realizing it. I had found myself in a similar, albeit much safer, situation, when I was asked to devolve part of my grant money to the feminist crowd funding campaign. Of course that invitation was miles away from the greedy claims on Regeni’s grant money, and I doubt I may have run the risk of torture by a feminist criminal gang. Still, I realized that interviewees may have very different expectations than we would like to believe.
More importantly, we need to be aware of the risks behind fieldwork, and universities should adopt appropriate and effective measures to ensure security and safety for their researchers. I went out collecting interviews for my PhD thesis without having the slightest idea of what measures I should take; I had never heard of ethics committees, and it wasn’t until I transformed my doctoral thesis into a book that I learnt about consent forms. Other early career researchers I talked to mentioned feeling unsafe. But these stories seem to remain unheard, perhaps because we take it for granted, or for fear of being criticized: I recently came across a Twitter thread that recounted the most obnoxious incident, in which a female academic told a group that she was anxious about fieldwork and entering people’s homes. A male academic interrupted her and told her to “man up”.
Apart from the lack of empathy and professional etiquette that clearly pervades the academic environment, I wonder if ethics committees are doing enough to limit risks and inform researchers of the rules to follow. Assessing potentially dangerous situations prior to the field research period often implies no more than boxes being ticked on a checklist.
Other than developing – or reconsidering – their guidelines, and making sure researchers are fully aware of these, perhaps ethical committees should be encouraged to get involved more actively in field research after approval. For one thing, they could develop more practical and personalized policies and training sessions, aimed less at covering universities’ backs and more at having researchers’ backs.
And we, as scholars, should probably “woman up” and share our doubts and anxieties any time we feel the need to.
About the author:
Andrea Hajek is an independent researcher and an academic proofreader at Your Editing Alternative. She obtained her doctoral degree at the University of Warwick, and has held a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Glasgow. She is the Managing Editor of the journal Memory Studies and an Associate Editor for Modern Italy. She is also a founding member of the Warwick Oral History Network and an affiliate member of the Centre for Gender History (University of Glasgow).