WhoP Workshop "Ethnographic Fieldwork in Asia: Research Ethics, Data Security, and Personal Safety"

On 16 and 17 December 2019, WhoP organises a workshop on ethnographic fieldwork in Asia. Here we will discuss various issues related to research ethics, data security, and personal safety. On the first day, there will be a number of guest lectures and group discussions. On the second day, we will discuss individual PhD and postdoc projects. If you wish to take part in the workshop, you can sign up by sending an email to the WhoP PI, Aike Rots.

In a short article published in the journal Ethnography, four leading Dutch anthropologists recently proposed a new set of ethical guidelines for anthropological research (De Koning et al. 2019). As the authors indicate, there is a fundamental tension between the realities of ethnographic research and some of the demands of funding bodies and data protection agencies, which operate with notions of “personal data” derived from medical and quantitative social sciences. One such example is the obligation to make data anonymous and open access, which denies the embodied and intersubjective nature of ethnographic knowledge exchange. Anthropological materials, the authors argue, “cannot be considered as disembodied and transferable ‘data’”; “providing open access to fieldwork materials is therefore limited.” Similarly, the use of informed consent forms for interviewees can be problematic. In many societies, the use of such forms would be considered inappropriate and may jeopardize relations of trust between a researcher and her interlocutors. As De Koning et al. write: “Anthropological research is built on trust, and researchers have a responsibility to protect the privacy and the safety of their interlocutors. (…) We consider it legitimate and often advisable to work with oral forms of consent, since written consent forms may impact negatively on interlocutors’ privacy, safety, and possession of knowledge.”

As scholars conducting qualitative ethnographic research, we have to comply with official regulations concerning personal data. Meanwhile, we also have a moral responsibility vis-à-vis our interlocutors in the field. What do we do when these two obligations collide? How do we protect the privacy and safety of our interlocutors, especially in totalitarian societies? How do we define “personal data” in qualitative ethnographic research, and how do we ensure that these data are treated in ways that guarantee the safety of our interlocutors, while also meeting European legal and formal requirements? In other words, how do we translate concepts and regulations that have been developed in Euro-American legal and cultural contexts into our Asian fieldwork settings? And, equally important, how do we protect our own personal safety in the field, and that of our partners and children?

These are some of the questions that will be addressed during this two-day workshop, the aim of which is to be better prepared for the challenges posed by the uncertainties of ethnographic fieldwork as well as legal or institutional requirements. Thus, we will discuss not only the theory, but also the practicalities and formalities of research ethics in the present age. Changes in legal requirements (e.g., GDPR), institutional formations, open access imperatives, and IT security are all posing new challenges for researchers conducting ethnographic fieldwork. European regulations may not be easily transferable to Asian (totalitarian) contexts, but somehow we have to make this translation. At this workshop, we will reflect upon these issues and share our experiences, concerns, and suggestions.

The workshop lasts two days. The first day consists of several guest lectures and discussions, addressing problems related to fieldwork challenges, data protection, formal requirements, informed consent, software and computer use, and personal safety. Confirmed speakers are Bjørn Enge Bertelsen, Olga Djordjilovic, Asbjørn Brovold Gabrielsen, Mette Halskov Hansen, Heidi Østbø Haugen, and Elisabeth Schober. On the second day, we will discuss individual research projects. Participants will briefly introduce their projects and share some of their ethical or practical concerns, and give feedback to each other, drawing on the lectures and discussions from the first day.

This is a closed workshop: only a limited number of participants can attend, and they have to sign up in advance. The atmosphere will be informal, collegial, and confidential, allowing us to share our questions and concerns in a safe environment. The workshop is primarily targeted at early-career scholars (postdocs and PhD candidates), but senior scholars are welcome to take part, too. If you wish to participate, please send an email to the Whales of Power project leader, Aike Rots (a.p.rots[at]ikos.uio.no), by November 15. Participation is free and lunches are provided, but registration is binding. Participants will be asked to share their research proposals or project outlines, together with a short text discussing some potential challenges in their project, in advance, by November 29.


Aike Rots
Published Oct. 9, 2019 3:52 PM - Last modified Oct. 9, 2019 3:52 PM