When assessing the research plan on ethical grounds attention is rightly
paid to protecting the subjects of research, such as the people answering
questions or participating in experiments. It is equally important to
protect you as the researcher from any risks that might exist.
There are two research settings where you need to consider your own
- Gathering data from or about people, such as interviewing, and
- Working on experiments in a laboratory, and/or where substances
should be treated with care, as with drug trials. This is something
much more likely to effect health care workers than social workers.
Gary Craig, Anne Corden and Patricia Thornton at the University of
Surrey have produced a useful Safety
in Social Research 'Update' report (2000).
Contacts with people
There is some risk to you whenever you are outside a protective environment.
Sometimes the risks are known and widely understood, for example if
you wish to interview people with a history of mental instability. Others
are more a matter of 'on-the-spot' judgement, though if you are a woman
you may be more aware of the kinds of situations in which you are potentially
Interviewing people in their own homes, in particular, introduces an
element of risk to the personal safety of researchers. Frequently researchers
go to interview respondents alone and sometimes out of office hours.
The nature of research is such that often they have minimal information
about respondents before calling on them, perhaps only their name, address
and telephone number and that they fall within the scope of the research.
Some professional researchers, for example those in market research,
are required to just knock on people's doors 'cold'. Such an approach
is not recommended unless arrangements have been made and are in operation
to safeguard the personal safety of researchers. Even then it is worth
asking yourself whether you could obtain your data by other means and
at less possible risk to yourself.
Your social work training will give you a good background in coping
with threatening situations and it is important that you apply this
to your data collection activities. Always remember that your safety
is paramount. Personal safety experts recommend that you rely on your
instincts and if you feel that you are in danger then you should get
Many research organisations have safety policies for staff who visit
people in their own homes, which are partly about how you should behave,
and partly about having some backup which will come into operation if
things go wrong. Here is an example of a policy developed and implemented
by a university research unit in consultation with a police crime prevention
Illustration of safety suggestions
|This is a unit where there are a number of researchers, so group
support is possible - as you read through consider whether you could
or should set up comparable arrangements with your colleague group.
1. Safety Files
- Within the unit, one person should have responsibility for
compiling and keeping up to date a 'safety file' for each researcher.
- Files are to be kept in a place accessible to all staff at
all times. All staff to be informed of where the files will
- Each file will contain:
- the name, home address and telephone number of the researcher;
- a brief description of the researcher - gender, height,
date of birth, skin colour; - a recent photograph;
- details of the researcher's car - registration number,
make model and colour;
- details of next of kin (if researcher agrees). It will
be the responsibility of each researcher to notify any changes
to the member of staff responsible for maintaining the files.
2. Arrangements for interviewing
- Agree with a colleague that he or she will be 'on call' for
you during the time of your interview(s). This will apply both
during and outside office hours.
- Make sure that the colleague has full details of the name
and address of the person(s) you will be visiting, their address,
telephone number and any other information that does not conflict
with undertakings of confidentiality.
- Ensure that the colleague also has details of where you will
be after the interview (during office hours) or your home address
and telephone number or other location (outside office hours).
In both cases, make sure the colleague has details of the registration
number, make, model and colour of the car you will be using
for the interview. Ensure that you have the telephone number
on which the colleague can be contacted.
- Arrange with the colleague that you will telephone him or
her when you arrive back at your office (office hours) or when
you arrive home or at the home of a relative or friend (outside
- Agree a time after which, if you have not contacted the colleague,
he or she will telephone the police.
- If you are delayed for a reason that you do not consider
threatening, telephone the colleague to let him or her know
of your revised anticipated time of arrival.
- If you have any reason to believe that a respondent (or anyone
else present at the interview location) might present a risk
of aggression/violence, then arrange to be accompanied.
(All staff at this unit are offered personal safety alarms,
have access to a mobile telephone, are advised to carry phonecards
and change for a public telephone, and have access to a resource
file containing, for example, advice relating to safe car parking).