A Systematic Handbook for Human and Digital Security

SAFEResearch in the Social Sciences


In recent years, conducting field research has become an increasingly risky endeavour, particularly in states or regions characterized by violent conflict, repressive political regimes, or state failure. Working under such conditions, or with marginalized communities facing similar circumstances, is challenging. Researchers need to protect themselves, and those with whom they work. They need to find ways to assure the physical safety of their respondents, and they must consider whether and how confidentiality can be maintained. High-profile cases—such as that of Italian PhD researcher Giulio Regeni, who was found tortured to death on a roadside in Egypt, or of Princeton graduate student Xiyue Wang, imprisoned in Iran—are horrendous. And they are only the tip of the iceberg.

Despite the fact that scholars across a range of disciplines face more and more challenges, guidance on how to prepare and conduct safe research is not readily available. As Ahram and Goode have recently observed, methodological texts in political science ‘do not offer a formula for “best practices” for authoritarian research’. Instead, such knowledge is often acquired through ‘a kind of informal apprenticeship in a fraternity of researchers’.

The SAFEResearch handbook describes the types of challenges researchers are facing in the field and provides a set of best practices for safer fieldwork. It is a collaborative effort written by researchers, journalists, and NGO workers from around the world.   

Covering the stages of typical research processes in the social sciences—from research preparations to safety during research and post-research debriefing—the handbook outlines ways in which the physical safety of researchers and subjects can be improved and the confidentiality of data and communication preserved in politically sensitive settings. Drawing on the accounts of scholars, journalists, data activists, and human-rights practitioners, the handbook covers both human and digital security and offers practical suggestions for conducting research in difficult environments.


Chapter 2 - Fieldwork Preparation 

This chapter deals with how researchers can take precautions before venturing into the field, to ensure personal safety and the safety of interlocutors. This will include researching legalities, threat and risk assessment, and constructing emergency response plans. The chapter also covers issues on informal procedures concerning the everyday contact among scholars and different authorities as well as advice on how to designate an adequate home contact. 

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Chapter 3 - in The FIELD

This chapter deals with the effective implementation of the precautions taken prior to the field, such as making dynamic risk assessments to continuously manage strategies in case of unforeseen changes in risk. Drawing on the experience of various Human Rights Organizations and NGO's, the chapter includes advice on behavior in various emergencies including natural disaster, medical emergencies, security emergencies and more. These aspects also extend to local contacts, and the chapter will provide advice on how to handle the risk of interlocutors. 

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Chapter 4 - After the Field  

This chapter aims to provide advice for researchers in the process of transitioning from fieldwork to writing. It deals with both practical issues such as securing data and the personal security of the researcher and the interlocutors in the long-term. Also with issues that the researcher may face when coming home from the field, such as psychological issues of trauma or having trouble "coming home" from the field. Finally, the chapter deals with how to evaluate the fieldwork preparation and the experiences from the field, in order to improve future application. 

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Chapter 5 - Digital Security  

This chapter deals with ways the researcher can secure communication and data storage. The chapter handles on the one hand general guidelines when it comes to codes of conduct and advice for communication, data collection, interviews etc. In addition, it deals with practical advice to secure your communication and data storage-process, and provides step-by-step guides to distinct software for encryption, anonymous communication, etc.  




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