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Field research in difficult contexts

Enquêter en terrains difficiles

Hostile settings, sensitive topics, taboos

Objets tabous, lieux dangereux, sujets sensibles

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Published on Wednesday, April 09, 2014


Toutes les disciplines des sciences sociales recourant à l’enquête sont aujourd’hui particulièrement sensibles aux problèmes épistémologiques et méthodologiques que pose l’enquête en terrains difficiles. La question a déjà été explorée. Cependant, beaucoup reste à dire sur les conséquences de ces difficultés : que ce soit sur l’enquête elle-même, sur le statut des données recueillies ou sur les défis éthiques que soulèvent la violence et l’insécurité de l’enquêteur et de ses informateurs. Les raisons de cette insuffisance tiennent peut-être à l’éclatement des lieux traversés par des rapports de violence, à la multiplicité des normes et des activités concernées, à l’absence de correspondance entre les temporalités vécues par les différents acteurs ou encore à l’hétérogénéité des corpus de données, ou à toutes ces raisons à la fois. Nous souhaiterions donc, dans ce dossier, confronter les réflexions des chercheurs sur quelques-uns des principaux défis qui se posent à l’enquête en ‘terrains difficiles’, c’est-a-dire sur des objets tabous ou des sujets sensibles, en situation de violence, dans des contextes de ‘pre-conflit’ ou de ‘post-conflit’ ou encore en situation de vulnérabilité, dans des contextes d’urgence ou de catastrophe naturelle, etc. 



Today, most of social sciences requiring field research are particularly sensitive to epistemological and ethical problems arising from research in difficult contexts. This is not a new concern. The topic has already been explored (Bouillon, Frésia & Tallio, 2006; Sriram, King, Merus, Martin-Ortega & Herman, 2009). Nevertheless, much remains to say about the various consequences of theses difficulties on fieldwork method: on the insecurity of the researcher and the protection of informants when operating in dangerous settings, on the ethical challenges surrounding research with vulnerable populations, or on the validity of information gathered in violent contexts.

Reasons for that are difficult to trace. They may be due to the disparity of hostile settings, to the normative pluralism of concerned institutions, to the disjunction of experienced temporalities by different actors, to the heterogeneity of data available, or to all these reasons altogether. With this special issue, we wish to confront researchers’ personal reflections on their own field experience about the challenges of conducting qualitative research in ‘difficult contexts’, on sensitive or forbidden topics, in hostile post-conflict or pre-conflict settings, or with vulnerable populations in situation of emergency or natural disaster, etc. Contributions for the following issues are welcome:

Access to research subjects on the field. This difficulty is common to all types of difficult contexts. Access to the field itself, but also access to research subjects or vulnerable people in post-conflict settings or natural disasters and finally, access to valuable information. Some settings are subjected to such military or police controls that access to the social spaces where potential informants are is hardly possible. In these situations some actors may be in the margins of law, while others may be clandestine. Then, how can the researcher conduct participant observation in social settings stressed by political violence? How can the researcher build trust and confidence with informants and authorities in such situations? The personal answers to these questions have a strong effect on the feasibility and the practicalities of fieldwork.

Sensitive topics, taboos. A setting may be difficult, not because of access but because of moral taboo or political sensitivity of research topic. Social taboos (like rape, suffering, abortion, power abuses), and sensitive topics (like the subjects’ victimization in sorcery or ordinary violence or the involvement of repellent groups in war crimes or genocides) call for research practices and methods exploring the margin of traditional research models.

The off-site survey’s epistemological shortcomings. The researchers’ difficulties to return back to fieldworks classified ‘dangerous’ and the increased financial cost of fieldwork missions collude with the possibilities offered by the new communication technologies to promote off-site surveys. Indeed, off-site survey or on-line ethno surveys seem to be a good alternative to solve a range of expected problems raised by access to difficult fieldwork settings. But, on-line surveys go very far beyond traditional qualitative research methods and therefore address several epistemological and ethical issues. Between subjective perspectives and unverifiable misleading statements, what is the veracity value of information collected at distance, by phone, mail or web? Or, through the virtual communities of social networking? Such a methodological development doubtlessly presents new challenges and interesting opportunities, but its impacts on the ethics of knowledge production in difficult contexts need an in-depth reflection.

The issue of security. Conducting field research in difficult or hostile settings raises practical, social and ethical problems that have direct methodological impacts on fieldwork. This is especially true of the ‘neither peace nor war’ contexts that are more and more frequent in the South. Among the many ethical issues at stakes is the crucial one of the protection of the informant and the researcher himself or herself. How therefore to avoid overemphasizing or underemphasizing the security impact of research in the daily life of respondents? The efforts to guard against risk of threat to personal security meet ethical issues difficult to address.

The issue of objectivity and reliability of information. Survey, either conducted in dangerous or hostile setting or off-site, involves several issues concerning the objectivity and validity of information. What we would like to do in this special issue is to reflect on the conditions of scientific objectification that derives from the necessary methodological ‘bricolages’ undertaken. Indeed, research in difficult settings is conducive not only to multiple subjectivities’ expression but also to intentionally oriented discourses. In these conditions, how can ethnography organize and give meaning to contested realities, when the contexts under study are marginal, conflicting, loaded with strong ideological and political stakes, and when researchers must compose - and sometimes compete - with many other stakeholders (local NGOs, international agencies, social workers or reporters)? When research explores situations of suffering, emotions that arise are to be taken seriously, since they generate a feeling of unease or illegitimacy, that the researcher cannot help feeling, being healthy and safe in such times of misfortune. How to then tackle this ineluctable malaise, when exploring the situations of victims of a violent physical assault or of refugees who had just fled a natural disaster or a war zone?

Submission guidelines

This call for papers is open to all social sciences rooted in empirical approaches to fieldwork.

The expected papers will position critically on methodological and ethical issues that arise from doing research in difficult, unstable, violent or dangerous settings in whatever part of the world.

Propositions of articles, in English or French, (title and abstract of 400 words) have to be sent

before 4 May 2014

to the following four addresses (secretariats, editors and coordinators:

Coordinators : Sylvie Ayimpam, Magali Chelpi-de Hamer, Jacky Bouju (IMAf/Aix-Marseille Université)

Civilisations is a peer-reviewed journal of anthropology. Published continuously since 1951, it features articles in French and English in the various fields of anthropology, without regional or time limitations. Revived in 2002 with a new editorial board and a new subtitle (Revue internationale d'anthropologie et de sciences humaines), Civilisations particularly encourages the submission of articles where anthropological approaches meet other social sciences, to better tackle processes of society making.

For more information, see http://civilisations.revues.org/


  • Sunday, May 04, 2014


  • anthropologie, enquête de terrains, tabous, épistémologie


  • Natacha Belang
    courriel : natacha [dot] belang [at] ulb [dot] ac [dot] be

Reference Urls

Information source

  • Natacha Belang
    courriel : natacha [dot] belang [at] ulb [dot] ac [dot] be


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« Field research in difficult contexts », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Wednesday, April 09, 2014, https://calenda.org/284202

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