Fieldwork during complex emergencies by Waradas Thiyagaraja

Posted in: Doctoral Exchange, Fieldwork, Research skills

A student blog as part of the Doctoral Exchange Series organised by the Doctoral College.

Fieldwork in the context on complex emergencies can be challenging in many ways as countries may face sudden natural disasters, wars, terrorist attacks, political instabilities, and riots. These challenges can occur before you begin fieldwork, during and after the field visit. The safety and security of the researcher, data and subjects become key concerns during field visit.

These are some of the key challenges that were identified during the Doctoral Exchange session:

01. Safety of the researcher

This includes issues related to being displaced and threats to life. In a mild situation it is wiser to return immediately to a safe space. This could be relocating to a different place within the same country or returning to the place of study.

In case of an emergency you should report to the supervisor, embassy, donors, and the university immediately. They can be helpful in evacuations and returning.

02. Safety of the subjects

Your interviewees or informants might not be accessible, or their circumstances might have changed due to the emergency. Avoid contacting them if it puts them in danger or vulnerability. Sometimes your informants are affected by the situation and might no longer be able to help you with your study. In such cases respect their decision and see if you could be of any help without jeopardising the safety of both them and you. You may also reschedule your interviews for a later time. It might be a good idea to check with the interviewee even before you leave your place to meet them. A last-minute check would always help, and be prepared for abrupt cancellations.

03. Safety of data

Your devices, files, notes, and documents are often at risk of being destroyed, misplaced or end in wrong hands. This will not only jeopardise your security but also your informant's too. A periodical transfer of data to a cloud storage or sending them back to your university might be useful so that you do not have to travel with your data. A tip would be to make sure data is stored in a safe place as soon as it is collected.


In certain situations, you might have to cut your trip short and return to the university. In such cases, you might have to renegotiate your data collection strategy, research design and incidental plans. Keeping your supervisor posted with regular communication and maintaining a personal reflective journal during your field visit would be helpful with your plan B.

In case of emergencies, keep your university, supervisor, donor, and embassy of your citizenship informed.

It might be a good idea to seek an affiliation with a local institution with a reputation in hosting research students from abroad and use their network in establishing contacts and setting up your work.


About Doctoral Exchange

This blog was written as part of the Doctoral Exchange Series, a round-table discussion series for doctoral researchers to share experiences and ideas in a peer-to-peer environment. All topics are student-led. The programme can be found online on the Doctoral Exchange webpage. If you are interested in facilitating a session then please email

Posted in: Doctoral Exchange, Fieldwork, Research skills


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