Fieldwork 101: Ethics and Getting Letters of Support

Conducting fieldwork and researching in schools, communities, hospitals, and war zones, for example, often come under heavy scrutiny by institutions of higher learning. While working with populations who are vulnerable, such as children, prisoners, refugees, and patients, researchers must write up a long document and undergo a process of ethics clearance. Different universities have different practices, and a Research Panel would decide if a researcher can, or cannot, carry out the proposed fieldwork.

The general issues arising from the research ethics committee often include the following:

About Participants/ Research Subjects
1. How do I select this group of participants? Why this particular individual or group?
2. What implications would this have on the community by my selection of this group, randomised or not, as it would obviously exclude others from participating? Would the non-participation result in issues that I may not be aware of, even outside my research?
3. How can I ensure the safety of my research participants?
4. How, and when, do I get their permission? Do I need an interpretator? Would signing their names on the consent form jeopardise their safety and security, especially if they live in communities characterised by violence, secrecy, or tightened security? If verbal agreements are taken as consent, especially in illiterate communities, how will the interpreter’s socioeconomic status/ ethnic identity/ political or religious affiliation with whom I am working affect the outcomes?
5. What measures are taken to protect their confidentiality, and that no coercion, threat or punishment in any shape or form has or had taken place prior, during and after my interviews? How can I ensure that they can opt out at any point in the research?

About Researcher and Data
1. How can I ensure my own safety (particularly in war zones), especially where I stay, how I commute from point to point, who my drivers and interpreters are, which organisations I’ll be visiting?
2. Are measures in place for reporting to a supervisor on-site as well as off-site, and how much information on venue, target population, etc should be revealed? While not revealing some information could protect the identity of research subjects, but revealing the same information would make the process transparent and could also ensure safety and accountability. So where is the middle ground?
3. Have I made contacts with various organisations — and how would I know their political, religious, social, cultural positionings?
4. What steps are taken to ensure protection and encryption of data, data storage, and retrieval of confidential documents?
To get my supervisors to agree with my research undertaking in Afghanistan is a mountain that is impossible to climb, especially the fact that I can never assure them of my, and researchers’, safety. It is true that accidents can happen anytime anywhere in the world, including Manchester or Singapore even while walking in the streets, but Research Panels  take these factors into consideration to a heigtened level, obviously with a lot more at stake for the institution.

Nevertheless, here are some official documents that a researcher might need to include in the Appendix for the Ethics Committee to peruse. In order to do so, making contact with research organisations is imperative.

Do note that signatories and personal information below have been whitened out to prevent document forgery.

1. Proof of Student Status from your University (latest copy).

2. Letter from academic supervisor for the benefit of research organisations to understand your research question.

3. Letter of Support from various organisations in host country, such as the British Council.

4. Letter of Support from Embassy.

5. Letter of Support from local university or local NGO from host country.