Implications of research in sensitive areas and appropriate considerations

We decided to put together a list of potential issues an ethnographer may face when doing research and possible ways to avoid these situations. Our topic reflects quite a sensitive array of circumstances, bringing into discussion the researcher’s practices in regards to personal safety and protection of people’s integrity. We will address situations in which researchers have to deal with sensitive data that is protected by local authorities for regulatory reasons. In the following parts, we will discuss matters of gathering data, storing it and publishing it by looking at a variety of case studies we found online, and eventually, present a list of considerations to present ways in avoiding the problems presented in the case studies. Our research investigates internet articles mainly about anthropologists, photographers and journalists, as we believe that the situations faced can be similar. We use their experiences to learn how to avoid some possible mistakes. Below you can find the list of the case studies we used for our analysis and what we believe can be learned from their experiences. We are well aware that there will always be risks when doing this kind of research, thus we do not claim to provide a list of ‘safety tips’ that will remove all the dangers, but rather a list of ‘how to perform a more cautious research’. This list will indicate some practices that can be adopted and some resources which can come in handy.

Case studies and problems with research:

Research always comes along with mistakes, inconveniences and learning points. We have identified 7 errors in research done in more sensitive communities or places, where authority has more control over the data collected which could potentially result in the researcher’s prosecution if unlawful actions are recognize. These mistakes are brought to the surface to help researchers explore more dimensions of probable implications before they seek to do research. Through the portrayal of 8 different case studies coming from anthropologists, social scientists, journalists and even tourists- all working with more sensitive data production in more restricted areas, different errors are scrutinized in the light of becoming learning outcomes and points of reference for future researchers that are pursuing research in such sensitive place. These indications are just examples of scenarios that happened in the past, as a way to indicate the complexity of doing research in more sensitive and restrictive communities.

Mistake categories:

  1. Illegal actions according to local laws and regulations
  2. Unfamiliarity with local social regulations, culture and history
  3. Posting sensitive data before the end of the research
  4. Posting on social media during the research
  5. Not having insurance and support for security
  6. Not estimating personal capabilities
  7. Not storing data in a safe place

Case study list:

  1. Social anthropologist facing nine years in prison escapes
  2. Description: Originally from Iran, he went to study abroad in the UK and received British citizenship. When back at his home country, he did research on topics such as: ‘child marriage and female genital mutilation and had campaigned among Iranian MPs to raise the age that girls can marry from the current minimum of 13 years.’ ‘He has also researched and written about white marriage (cohabitation), deprivation among the homosexual community, child poverty, identity and ethnicity, multiculturalism and modernity in the Middle East and other parts of the world.’ Such matters are not to be publicly discussed, thus the authorities have found his research sensitive and inappropriate. He was condemned to 9 years of prison because of his research, as he tried to promote Western socio-cultural practices, to change the Iranian law, in that sense and for bringing foreign powers into having influence over Iran. His estimation of his own capabilities and powers might not have been enough for the kind of changes he was aiming for.

    Category: 1, 6

  3. Iran detained at least 8 Kurdish journalists starting in mid-2020; 3 remain behind bars
  4. Description: Eight Kurdish journalists have been detained in Iran by authorities under the accusations that they have gathered sensitive and illegal data, disregarding the laws of protection for national safety. Their mission was to study the possibility of the unity of Iraq, Iran and Turkish Kurds, in which the national authorities are against. Their data has been found after confiscations of their electronic devices. This case study accounts for better data protection from the researchers’ side but also taking better measures in understanding the estimated danger the researchers are putting themselves in to gather data, due to possible political stances and ethnic discrimination.

    Category: 1, 6, 7

  5. Fariba Adelkhah: French academic 'jailed for six years' in Irans

    Description: A French-Iranian anthropologist was sentenced to jail for violating national regulations by her research. The local authorities have indicated that the researcher is conducting propaganda due to the sensitive data gathered and has been charged with espionage and even faulty accusations. The Iranian government discredited her dual citizenship and rejected any assistance the French government has tried to give.

    Category: 1, 5

  7. Social anthropology student detained without charge in Egypt
  8. Forcibly disappeared graduate student brought before prosecution, handed 15-day remand detention order

    Description: Masters student from the USA detained in Egypt for unlawful data collection regarding to authorities, about women’s rights and abortion. The authorities were aware of his research since he was arrested and checked at the airport prior to his departure from Cairo, and found data on his laptops and other electronic devices. He was beaten and taken under the Egyptian custody due to the unlawful national findings.

    Category: 1, 6, 7

  9. China: One year after the Covid-19 outbreak, seven journalists still detained for reporting on the issue
  10. Description: Chinese citizen journalists who reported about the covid outbreak in Wuhan were imprisoned because they made the information public worldwide. One case, in particular, became popular: Zhang Zhan posted videos on social media about interviews with local business owners about the effects of covid. outbreak. They have been convicted for their actions. As a citizen journalist, she went to the field on her own, possibly without having a strong support system behind her. She posted her findings on social media which made it immediately accessible as the information became public worldwide and the source was clearly made known, surpassing the local authorities and regulations about such sensitive matters, as she published information that the authorities wanted to have control over.

    Category: 1, 3, 4, 5

  11. A Photographer’s Approach Toward Covering Sensitive Subjects
  12. Description: This can account for the issues photographers and ethnographers face in research when dealing with ‘sensitive subjects.’ The law in different countries differs and proper knowledge should be encompassed to avoid any type of prosecution or illegal actions. For example, ‘A photographer named Marisha Camp got into trouble for shooting photos of kids in West Virginia after the locals got angry and confronted. They threatened her with physical violence; she was detained, and eventually escorted out of the county by the police.’ Moreover when covering political, state and social events such as wars, riots and protests the government might be more strict in what is allowed to get published, so that the media does not manipulate the events. Due to governmental and political affluence and disposal of money and resources, the researcher might be found in a sensitive position

    Category: 1, 2

  13. 1 year in US prison for Chinese student for military photos
  14. Description: A Chinese student took photos of a secret U.S. military base that was forbidden to photograph and therefore sentenced to one year in prison, since he captured photos of restricted areas. He was unaware of the laws and their severity.

    Category: 1, 2, 6, 7

  15. Iran arrests Kurdish journalist for not using ‘martyr’ to describe Soleimani: Report
  16. Description: Kurdish journalist, using Telegram as his media platform, has been arrested by the Iranian intelligence division for not using the word ‘’martyr’’ when describing killed top Iranian general. The journalist was transported to an unknown place. An Iranian human rights activist shares that there is no legal basis behind this arrest, but it is common practice for Iranian authorities to arrest Kurdish journalists accusing them of different things.

    Category: 2

Possible considerations

As we can see from the examples, dangerous and even life-threatening mistakes could be made while gathering data and doing research. We tried to analyze the circumstances and to come up with possible considerations to avoid these situations. Finally, we made a list with tips on how to avoid danger while doing research. Of course, the list could be extended as we could never provide all solutions and considerations.


We advise researchers, in general, to draw wisdom from different places: previous experiences and case studies, online resources from different professions with similar faced dangers and to always keep an eye on best applying ethical considerations, given the circumstances and context. Every situation is different, therefore it is best to understand the perplexities of considerations and prepare for the ‘worst’ before conducting research, to avoid unplanned negative surprises.

Sensitive Research Considerations by Miia Lepola, Daniela Tinca, Maria Ladommatou & Aleksandar Gegov is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0