Dealing with fieldwork risk: Data security and beyond

Workshop Report

On  May 15 , the Center for Conflict Studies Marburg organized a TraCe workshop on research safety in fieldwork. Moderated by Ilyas Saliba, the workshop attracted 25 participants from different TraCe institutions, ranging from PhD candidates to professorial level.

Before, During, and After Fieldwork

The workshop gave concrete tools for a comprehensive risk assessment and steps to take in preparation of field research in order to protect the safety of researchers, their interlocuters and third parties. Based on the book Safer Field Research, Ilyas Saliba introduced the participants into strategies and possibilities of enhancing safety in difficult field research situations. Field research is inherently risky, and while not all fieldwork is dangerous, it is never risk-free. Researchers and Higher Education Institutions must manage these risks more effectively. Institutional responses to increasing threats to academic freedom, such as liability-driven procedures and the securitization of fieldwork, impose restrictions on researchers and impact knowledge production. This trend results in increased administrative requirements, such as obtaining research visas, written consent forms, and adhering to open data initiatives. In the workshop, participants discussed options of addressing risk without putting too much bureaucratic burdens on the research or endangering critical research through liability logics.

Data and Digital Security

In today’s datafied context, digital security is paramount. The workshop provided detailed strategies for handling digital risks, focusing on secure communication, data collection and processing, and data storage. Researchers must be cautious about digital threats and adopt strategies such as “slipping through the net”, increasing the costs of data breaches, and minimizing the benefits to potential adversaries. Ensuring digital security is crucial for protecting research data and maintaining the integrity of the research process. The workshop offered concrete strategies of addressing these issues.

The Role of Researchers & Institutions

The role of researchers and institutions in managing risks and ensuring safety was a central theme of the workshop. Researchers must identify opposing and supporting actors, assess vulnerabilities and capacities, and draft security plans with preventive and protective measures. Universities have a duty to support researchers through comprehensive risk assessments, preparation of contingency and exit plans, and provision of training for conducting fieldwork in hostile environments. Self-care and professional support are also vital components of fieldwork preparation and post-fieldwork recovery as the participants discussed. The workshop included a practical case study of a fictitious sociologist from a German university conducting research in Egypt. This exercise highlighted the complexities of fieldwork in unfamiliar contexts and the importance of supervisor awareness, informed decision-making, and ongoing risk management. Researchers were encouraged to make informed decisions about housing and transportation, protect their interlocutors, and continuously update their risk assessments. Sharing fieldwork experiences and best practices was emphasized as a way to enhance safety and efficacy.


There are no silver bullets to guarantee fieldwork safety. Institutional solutions like ethics boards come with their own problems and cannot universally ensure the safety of fieldwork. Security measures are highly context-dependent, varying significantly based on location, topic, and other factors. Institutions and departments must take the safety of field researchers, especially PhD candidates, more seriously. This involves recognizing the unique risks associated with different fieldwork contexts and providing tailored support and resources. By doing so, institutions can better protect their researchers and contribute to the sustainable and ethical production of knowledge. The participants discussed ways forward, particularly in securing continuity. One concrete idea is to organize yearly workshops guaranteeing that new PhD candidates also are being trained according to their needs. TraCe is an excellent framework for this initiative because it takes away the burden of individual institutions and can provide services efficiently to a wide range of scholars who work on topics in violent contexts.

Note: In the latest TraCe podcast episode we also talked about the challenges of field research in Brazil and Colombia (this podcast episode is in German).