At a mosque in Senegal


Safety in the Field

While #MeToo opened up the debate about experiences of intimidation and sexual harassment of scientists at universities, the issue of safety during fieldwork is rarely addressed. Fieldwork requires long-term stays in unfamiliar areas and close (working) relationships with people on whom we are dependent for our data. The Working Group Safety in the Field studies the challenges that researchers encounter during fieldwork, particularly in relation to questions of social safety and sexual harassment. We explore how universities position themselves in relation to these issues, and in what way institutional attention to the topic might be introduced or improved.

After personal experiences of harassment during fieldwork, we organised an online webinar titled Choosing between success and safety: The challenges of the fieldworker on 19 June 2020. The webinar explored the role universities play in (not) protecting their researchers in the field, both before, during, and after the fieldwork period. The webinar was complemented by a survey, which showed how strikingly often (69%) respondents had experienced issues of (sexual) intimidation and harassment and how many respondents (85%) felt their employer had not adequately prepared them for fieldwork. These numbers correspond with the few studies that have been done on this issue, with an American study finding that 70 percent of women academics experienced sexual intimidation during fieldwork. Hierarchy and competition often lead to reluctance to report such experiences as they might affect academic trajectories. A report of this meeting and the results of the survey were published in Lova Journal of December 2020.

In May 2021 we organised a second webinar Harassment in the field: Reflections on safety and vulnerability during fieldwork to reflect on the impact of (sexual) harassment and intimidation in the field, both for us as ethnographers and for the practice of ethnography. This webinar was also the start of the production of a special issue of Lova Journal on this same topic, published in December 2021. Leading questions were: 1. How do we balance the personal and the professional in the field? 2. How do our ideas about ‘ethnographers’ compare with our own field experiences? 3. How does the way we think about ‘ethnography’ affect our safety in the field, as well as the way we construct ethnographic knowledge?

In 2022, Kiki Bijleveld wrote a thesis for her Master in Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at Leiden University about the institutional blind spots concerning safety in the field. For this research she interviewed researchers from different universities in the Netherlands about their experiences. In January 2023 Kiki wrote a reflection on her findings and on ethnographic research in general for our Lova website.

Through these webinars, the special issue of Lova Journal, a thesis, and all the discussions we had had among ourselves and with colleagues about our experiences during fieldwork, we had learned that questions of safety and wellbeing in the field were rarely, and definitely not structurally, addressed at universities. Because we believe that pre-fieldwork methodological training should address these issues, to better prepare students and researchers for fieldwork, we decided to develop a workshop to address these issues with students. Loes Oudenhuijsen and her colleague Dr. Karin Nijenhuis from the African Studies Centre developed a two-hour interactive session in which students learned from formers students and senior researchers about their experiences in the field. These experiences formed the basis for discussions about how to protect your boundaries, and how to recognise and minimise potentially dangerous conditions. The workshop explored and discussed possible strategies of prevention and support of sexually charged research experiences with researchers and (research) master and PhD students.

Additionally, we believe that better support systems should be in place at universities, and want to develop workshops for university staff, lecturers, and supervisors to raise awareness on how to recognise potential issues for their students and how to support them before, during, and after fieldwork. After all, the responsibility for students’ safety should not lie with the individual researcher or student, but with the university. Whether harassment or intimidation happens beyond the doors of the university, or in the ‘free time’ of the researcher during their fieldwork: such cases always happen in the context of their work.

Would you like to join us, discuss new ideas, or contribute to our work? You can email us at We look forward to hearing from you.

Lise Zurné, PhD (Lecturer, Erasmus University Rotterdam)
Loes Oudenhuijsen (PhD Candidate, African Studies Centre, Leiden University)

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