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An early report on the National Centre for Research Methods’ Inquiry on risk to researcher well-being. Michael Bloor, Ben Fincham & Helen Sampson. Methods. Literature survey

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An early report on the National Centre for Research Methods’ Inquiry on risk to researcher well-being

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An early report on the National Centre for Research Methods’ Inquiry on risk to researcher well-being

Michael Bloor, Ben Fincham & Helen Sampson

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  • Literature survey

  • Interviews with persons with cognate institutional responsibilities (e.g. university insurance managers, chairs of ethics committees) and with persons in institutions where employees run cognate risks (e.g. aid workers, journalism)

  • Website for submissions and discussions

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  • Moderated discussion board, with provision for anonymised postings (moderator:

  • Four categories: physical risk, gender & risk, emotional risk, institutional risk management

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The Gender Dimension


  • Sexual harassment and emotional risk

  • The management of personal risk and security

  • Gender and ‘emotional labour’

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  • Narratives of individual risk and harm, drawing general inferences from particular circumstances

  • General surveys and collections of readings

  • Guidelines, especially ‘A code of practice for the safety of social researchers’ []

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‘Budgeting for Safety’: ‘….Project costs might include extra fieldwork time (working in pairs, providing a ‘shadow’ or reporting back to base), taxis or hired cars, appropriate overnight accommodation, special training and counselling for staff researching sensitive topics. These extra costs elements may need to be discussed with funders as the proposal is being drafted…..’- Social Research Association 2003

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Guidelines apart….

  • The literature is dominated by a vision of the lone fieldworker/interviewer securing both their data and their personal security through a combination of sensitivity, integrity, reflexivity, blah, blah, blah…

  • This is valuable and instructive. BUT it fails to take into account that: (a) a PhD supervisor or grantholder might not draw the researcher’s attention to this literature; and (b) the researcher is frequently part of a team and the research takes place within an institutional context involving other parties such as research funders and research ethics committees

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Existing institutional frameworks: 1. insurance

  • HEI insurance policies provide appropriate cover for researchers and postgraduate students, but…

  • Require pre-notification of unusual risks and may require payment of an additional premium

  • And require all projects to be preceded by a formal recorded risk assessment

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Existing institutional frameworks:2. risk assessments

  • University safety officers and occupational health & safety specialists are happy to provide help in risk assessments, but believe the responsibility for conducting them should lie with the project leader or Head of Department

  • And Insurance policies require that a formal risk assessment is conducted for every research project

  • BUT such risk assessments are frequently neglected

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Existing institutional frameworks:3. counselling and debriefing

  • Many HEIs offer access to specialist confidential counselling and debriefing services

  • BUT counsellors and Human Resources Depts alike report that these services are hardly ever used by social researchers who have suffered harm in the course of their research

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Existing institutional frameworks:4. ethics committees

  • Ethics committees appear to be willing in principle to enquire into this topic.

  • BUT most do not have protocols or forms which explicitly require the applicant and the committee to address researcher safety (Dickson-Swift et al 2005 Aust N Z J Public Health 29: 576-9)

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  • ‘I don’t have any direct experience of work with social researchers…’ – consultant occupational physician working for a university health service

  • ‘I certainly haven’t had anyone coming to see me and saying that I’m putting in a [social] research proposal and I need an indication of what the [additional] insurance costs will be…’

    - university insurance manager

  • A university HR manager could not recall being asked to deal with a single instance of project-related harm to a social researcher between 1995 and 2006

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  • Both the literature and the submissions to the website suggest that there is a substantial issue of physical and/or emotional harm to social researchers

  • And there are formal structures in place in HEIs to protect researchers and respond to any harm that occurs

  • BUT we don’t know how effective these structures are, because by and large they NOT BEING USED by research managers

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Mary Douglas’s 4 different cultural orientations to risk

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‘The implications of this [culture of risk] approach for risk assessment and perception are revolutionary. It implies that people select certain risks for attention to defend their preferred lifestyles and as a forensic resource to place blame on other groups….That is, what societies choose to call risky is largely determined by social and cultural factors, not nature’ – Royal Society, 1992: 112

S. Rayner (1986) ‘Management of radiation hazards in hospitals: plural rationalities in a single institution’, Social Studies of Science, 16: 573-591

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The experience of cognate institutions

The world has changed. Now, institutions like aid agencies and the news media operate with both structures and cultures which are much more protective of employee health and safety and seek to minimise the wastage of talent and experience that used to be dismissed as ‘burn-out’

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Some (very tentative) conclusions

  • Harm to researchers is more extensive than would appear from formal complaints, etc.

  • Emotional harm is a particular problem.

  • The university sector can learn a lot from other sectors:

    senior aid worker: ‘if you haven’t prepared for the worst, you’ll be up the creek when it happens’

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Some (very tentative) conclusions 2

  • Universities already have many useful procedures in place and resources available, but responsibility lies with project managers/ research supervisors who, in many cases, are not discharging those responsibilities satisfactorily.

  • One possible driver for change would be for ethics committees to routinely require applicants to submit evidence (e.g. a risk assessment) that researcher safety had been considered and provided for.

  • Let us have your views!

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