Academic fieldwork is a context where harassment and sexual misconduct can thrive

Dani Bradford draws on her research to argue that universities should target academic fieldwork for intervention to prevent and address harassment and sexual misconduct

Dani Bradford is Policy and Research Manager at Students' Union UCL

Whilst the pandemic disrupted fieldwork internationally, field sites are back in full-swing this summer. So shouldn’t we think about the safety of the students learning, researching and working in these contexts?

Imagine you are a first year undergraduate studying a discipline that emphasizes the importance of field research. You were drawn to your course partly because they advertised a range of fieldwork opportunities as central to the course, which was particularly exciting.

Fieldwork is not something you’ve had the chance to take part in before, and you have to complete a certain number of weeks of fieldwork to progress into second year. You and a number of other students in your course are invited to attend a fieldsite abroad where one of the course supervisors works.

You are all living together in dormitory-style housing, a mixture of students and staff in the same room; you cook and eat together, and there are always a few cold beers waiting for the team at the end of the workday (and sometimes, in the lunch break, too).

Something goes wrong a week in – maybe another student is making sexual advances that make you feel uncomfortable, maybe one of the staff members keeps asking questions and making “jokes” about your sexuality and sex life when they’ve had a few drinks, maybe a volunteer repeatedly makes excuses to touch you, put their arm around you, hug you from behind.

You try and laugh it off at first, because these “jokes” and comments seem common, and no one who witnesses seems to bat an eyelid, so you assume it is part of the “culture”, and you want to fit in.

It’s also not clear what your options are. You are a one-hour hike and a five hour drive from the airport, with no local transport links, and the only way you could safely leave is with a staff member. You don’t speak the local language. When you tried to mention that you felt uncomfortable to a senior member of staff you felt dismissed. If you don’t complete the required length of fieldwork, you are worried you won’t be allowed to progress into your second year.

Do you formally report? How do you ensure that you can stay safe in such an environment?

Field of vulnerability

Many of our students take part in fieldwork across various different disciplines, whether they be PhD students undertaking research of their own or undergraduate students attending field-schools to gain the practical skills and experience for their courses.

What fieldwork looks like for students also varies hugely across disciplines and personal situations. Examples can include geology students taking samples of earth from volcanic slopes, archaeology students taking part in organised digs at ancient sites, or business studies students observing management behaviour in city firms.

Despite this variety, academic research and personal testimonies reveal a common concern – safety.

In 2014 a ground-breaking study quantified a problem that students and academics had been raising alarm bells about for years – survey data showed that harassment and assault are common experiences in fieldwork, particularly for less senior participants. Numerous studies have been carried out since, highlighting the experiences of fieldworkers in different disciplines and from different backgrounds.

However, whilst many posited potential reasons for why sexual misconduct occurs so commonly in fieldwork, there was little quantitative evidence examining both the causes and whether efforts to reduce sexual misconduct in these contexts actually worked.

Pockets of risk

In a newly published paper focusing on fieldwork within archaeology and anthropology, myself and my co-author, Enrico Crema, use survey data to show that there are specific environmental and social contexts present in fieldwork that increase the likelihood of participants experiencing harassment or assault, and we propose that there are evidence-based ways of reducing this risk.

Most of our research participants had done their fieldwork at field schools and designated field sites, and we found that as the length of fieldwork increased, so did the likelihood of participants experiencing sexual misconduct. We also found that non-male and sexual minority participants were most vulnerable, and that a culture of “informality” where staff of all seniority and students were living, working and often drinking together can lead to a culture in which sexual misconduct is not only seen as common – but something that participants need to “put up with” if they want to take part in fieldwork.

Participants in our research spoke of a “culture of shame” around sexual misconduct in the field, with one even describing it as a “necessary evil of fieldwork”. We propose that potential perpetrators may see, consciously or subconsciously, fieldwork as an environment in which they can harass and assault others with little chance of consequences.

The jury is still out on whether sexual misconduct occurs more often in fieldwork than in other educational contexts, and in lieu of a sector-wide prevalence study that question is hard to answer. However, it does seem clear that there are certain contextual factors within fieldwork that can enable and protect perpetrators, and place victims in a particularly vulnerable position.

The example in the opening of the blog is not based on a specific “real” experience or case-study. But it does draw on themes within the qualitative data from research and personal testimonies already published in the academic literature and in personal blogs. They describe being far away from home, in a context where alcohol is common and you are living and working together for weeks or months on end, where often either your course or your research depends on completing the fieldwork season. This can undoubtedly create a context in which students are extremely vulnerable, and in which perpetrators are empowered.

Doing better

The good news is that fieldwork does not have to be like the example above, if the correct safeguards are implemented. There are already numerous fieldsites, departments and courses that have been working for years to improve the culture and safety of fieldwork. And our research shows that simple measures such as communicating behavioural expectations via sexual misconduct policies and protocols are successful in reducing the risk to participants.

Whilst the length of fieldwork and certain characteristics of the fieldwork participant can increase the risk of misconduct, policies and protocols can reduce it. For example, the probability of experiencing sexual misconduct for a non-male, sexual minority participant taking part in fieldwork for a period of six months was a staggering 82 percent according to our model. However, when the field site had policies and protocols that specifically targeted sexual misconduct in the field, that was communicated to participants before they arrived on site, this dropped to 28 percent.

Behavioural statements and policies are pretty easy to implement, and many fieldsites have already gone beyond this with initiatives to increase safety in the field. Some give students external contact details – someone, often within the department, who is not at the fieldsite and who they can contact for help if they do not feel they can speak to the staff at the site with them.

Some have implemented “buddy” schemes, either pairing students up with someone else on fieldwork with them, or someone in the institution who has taken part in similar fieldwork before, to provide advice, guidance and support. Others have banned alcohol on student-centered fieldwork, and some departments have introduced new staff posts focusing on fieldwork student safety and student wellbeing during fieldwork.

Sexual misconduct does not have to be a “necessary evil” of fieldwork. But that depends on us all agreeing that this behaviour is not something we want to accept for ourselves or for our students and colleagues, and working to implement appropriate safeguards.

One response to “Academic fieldwork is a context where harassment and sexual misconduct can thrive

  1. Super helpful & relevant article & good practical ideas – thank you.
    Working in sexual violence prevention/support one particular challenge is providing support for people on international fieldwork, where we’re not familiar with local support services, legal procedures etc.

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