The hidden price of risky research

My rapist was not Mr. Z but a member of his innermost circle — his “money collector.” I hardly knew my rapist; I did not even know his name. He was the tall, wiry guy I had eaten dinner with many times, let into the house, and would greet on the street. Before that night, I had written four unremarkable sentences about him in my field notes. Then one evening Mr. Z invited me to have dinner with him and his friends — a fieldwork opportunity I always accepted. Because he had other plans later, he asked the money collector to take me home, where he then raped me. Mr. Z was as much of a gatekeeper in my fieldwork as he was in my rape: The rapist was Mr. Z’s friend and subordinate, and it happened under his roof and watch that night. What happened to me was an ordinary acquaintance rape of extraordinary circumstances.

In the immediate days that followed, it is not an exaggeration to say that I feared for my life. With one unforeseen event, a situation that had felt fairly safe rapidly escalated into dangerous. For more reasons than one, I did not involve the police: In a country with an astonishingly high rate of rape and a notoriously corrupt police force, I did not believe the police (even with the involvement of the U.S. embassy) would protect me. Nor would the criminal-justice system deliver me meaningful justice.

Instead I turned to Mr. Z, who governed this world. I wanted him to know what the money collector had done, and I needed to inoculate any threat I presented, as I was no longer his houseguest but the raped American researcher. Although he expressed some sympathy, his allegiances were with his money collector. We tacitly agreed that I wouldn’t pursue charges and he wouldn’t harm me.

Having completed a significant amount of research, I could have abruptly ended my fieldwork. Instead, I chose to take a leave and later returned to finish what I had started. I refused to allow my rapist to take my fieldwork after already taking my body.

In The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart, Ruth Behar quotes Clifford Geertz: “You don’t exactly penetrate another culture, as the masculinist image would have it. You put yourself in its way and it bodies forth and enmeshes you.” This is my story about rape, but it is more than that, too.

Full piece, by Mingwei Huang. Hat tip @kcroninfurman

Here is another bit:

When ethnographers can access and immerse themselves in worlds unknown, such as illicit ones, their work is valued and rewarded. Within the academic version of celebrity, the risk-taking, intrepid, normatively white and male ethnographer is a star. The price that many ethnographers pay in pursuing their fieldwork is not always recognized, and rape carries a particular stigma.

I agree the risks are particularly high for women, because of rape, but it’s worth saying that youth, inexperience, and peer pressure also drive broader set of field work risks, risks that few of us as graduate students were prepared for.

I have not only felt these myself (when, as PhD students pursuing their dissertation, my wife and I camped in displacement camps with active rebels around) but even more acutely when I hire young research assistants and surveyors. The risk their home is invaded by criminals (happened, fortunately non-violently); the risk that someone breaks an ankle on slippery motorbike paths through the jungle (also happened); a mugging gone awry (also happened, fortunately resulting only in minor injury). Nothing more serious has happened on my projects so far. Partly this is because precautions I insist on. Partly because I’ve pulled out of working in some countries for reasons like these. But partly it’s also luck.

It’s surprising how little we talk about these risks, even when  those of us who work in dangerous places gather for drinks. People exchange advice, especially about health risks—where to go for emergency malaria treatment, warnings not to take the motorbike taxis, and so forth. But my hunch is that machoism keeps us from talking about the security concerns, rape included.

7 thoughts on “The hidden price of risky research

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  2. Thanks for your post, Chris. As a former RA myself, I appreciate you writing about this and I applaud your efforts as a PI to think about the risks your research team is exposed to. There needs to be more discussion about these issues, including the “benign” everyday risks of road accidents and the complete absence of emergency medical services. When I first arrived as an RA, all of my fellow RAs took buses on the long-haul route between our rural research site and the capital 10-12 hours away despite the existence of an airport 2 hours from the research site. It was subtly implied that flying was too expensive for the lean research budgets. It was only when a new RA arrived (who had been a Peace Corps volunteer elsewhere and experienced a fellow volunteer die in a road accident) and insisted on flying between the research site and the capital did that practice become the norm.

  3. Any evidence that risks are higher for ethnographers in foreign countries than for, say, ketchup salesmen who spend a lot of time driving around american freeways? or any other occupation? To put it slightly more kindly: rape is a serious problem, sadly for potentially almost all women.

  4. And, (perhaps related to how little these risks are spoken of), how poorly the organisations that we work for – NGOs, UN Agencies, research institutes, contractors all included – take Employee Assistance Programs or at the very least, basic psychosocial support such as access to telephone counselling. Keen to hear your thoughts on this and how we encourage better employee support in such circumstances? For me, even acknowledging the privileged position that a foreigner comes from should not preclude adequate support, and any staff equity issue can be overcome by providing such support to both expat and locally engaged staff…