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Unsettling research

6 February 2019

The article at a glance

No ivory tower here: how academics are affected by research in unsettling contexts like refugee camps, prisons and rape-crisis centres. A frequent …

No ivory tower here: how academics are affected by research in unsettling contexts like refugee camps, prisons and rape-crisis centres.

A frequent refrain voiced about academic institutions is that there is too much “ivory tower” research divorced from the realities of everyday life and real-world problems.

This is certainly not the case for academic researchers who conduct fieldwork in unsettling settings such as refugee camps, rape-crisis centres, prisons, and among street-level sex workers. These locales are often bleak, depressing and seemingly hopeless – hardly quiet retreats isolated from grim truths.

Research by four academics associated with Cambridge Judge Business School examined the experience of organisational scholars who conducted fieldwork in these sorts of unsettling settings. Their findings look at the emotional responses of these scholars, and offer suggestions on how to cope with such responses.

“Prolonged exposure to the lived experience of others – by observation as in ethnography or vicariously through interviews – can be deeply unsettling,” says the research. “Human misery is contagious.”

The research was conducted by Laura Claus, who recently earned her PhD from Cambridge Judge and is now an Assistant Professor at University College London School of Management; Mark de Rond, Professor of Organisational Ethnography at Cambridge Judge; Jennifer Howard-Grenville, Diageo Professor in Organisation Studies at Cambridge Judge; and Jan Lodge, a PhD candidate at Cambridge Judge.

Their findings are outlined in a chapter in an edited volume (Research in the Sociology of Organizations, Volume 59), entitled “When Fieldwork Hurts: On the Lived Experience of Conducting Research in Unsettling Contexts”.

Based on 18 interviews with scholars who have conducted fieldwork in such settings (including some with Cambridge Judge connections), the researchers found a set of common concerns and causes of “unsettling-ness”.

Such feelings often come from the contrast between what they encountered in the fieldwork and their everyday lives, and led to reactions such as feelings of helplessness, guilt or shame, and discomfort about their role doing fieldwork in these settings.

For example, Kamal Munir, Reader in Strategy & Policy at Cambridge Judge, studied child labour in the manufacture of soccer balls in Pakistan, and asked himself: “what gives me the right to go and collect data from completely destitute people who, I can see, are highly oppressed?” Kamal decided to bring attention to help end these practices through newspaper articles and other steps, or otherwise it’s “an exploitative relationship”.

The research suggests, based on the interviews, several ways that academics can cope with the feelings unleashed by these unsettling settings.

Regular communication through emails, memos or field diaries can help such scholars process their experiences from the field (although some found it very difficult to talk about their work because they felt other parties would be unable to relate).

Enacting “boundary rituals” such as a long commute between home and the fieldwork setting can ease unsettling experiences by allowing people to “decompress”.

Another strategy was “letting be” through a realisation that an individual cannot “save” everyone, so this is a way of coping by shedding moral burdens.

Giving back through fundraisers, proposals and books, writing blogs, or volunteering helped others deal with their feelings. “The need to give back to the communities we study was, for many of our interviewees, the most pro-active and immediate way to address persistent feelings of guilt and shame,” the researchers said.

The book chapter ends with some self-searching.

“Exposure to those less fortunate reminds us of how lucky we really are,” the co-authors write in conclusion. “[We] are perfectly able to carve out a successful career solving relatively trivial problems. Question is: should we? Beyond journal publications, if we were to take seriously our responsibility to ‘give back’, what might that imply in terms of how we teach, write and organise our careers?”