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Executive and professional education


No ivory tower here: how academics are affected by research in unsettling contexts like refugee camps, prisons and rape-crisis centres.

Man in prison

A frequent refrain voiced about academic
institutions is that there is too much “ivory tower” research divorced from the
realities of everyday life and real-world problems.

This is certainly not the case for academic
researchers who conduct fieldwork in unsettling settings such as refugee camps,
rape-crisis centres, prisons, and among street-level sex workers. These locales
are often bleak, depressing and seemingly hopeless – hardly quiet retreats
isolated from grim truths.

Research by four academics associated with Cambridge
Judge Business School examined the experience of organisational scholars who
conducted fieldwork in these sorts of unsettling settings. Their findings look
at the emotional responses of these scholars, and offer suggestions on how to
cope with such responses.

“Prolonged exposure to the lived experience of
others – by observation as in ethnography or vicariously through interviews –
can be deeply unsettling,” says the research. “Human misery is contagious.”

The research was conducted by Laura Claus, who recently earned her PhD from Cambridge Judge and is now an Assistant Professor at University College London School of Management; Mark de Rond, Professor of Organisational Ethnography at Cambridge Judge; Jennifer Howard-Grenville, Diageo Professor in Organisation Studies at Cambridge Judge; and Jan Lodge, a PhD candidate at Cambridge Judge.

Their findings are outlined in a chapter in an
edited volume (Research in the Sociology
of Organizations, Volume 59
), entitled “When Fieldwork Hurts: On the Lived
Experience of Conducting Research in Unsettling Contexts”.

Based on 18 interviews with scholars who have
conducted fieldwork in such settings (including some with Cambridge Judge
connections), the researchers found a set of common concerns and causes of

Such feelings often come from the contrast
between what they encountered in the fieldwork and their everyday lives, and
led to reactions such as feelings of helplessness, guilt or shame, and
discomfort about their role doing fieldwork in these settings.

For example, Kamal Munir, Reader in Strategy & Policy at Cambridge Judge, studied child labour in the manufacture of soccer balls in Pakistan, and asked himself: “what gives me the right to go and collect data from completely destitute people who, I can see, are highly oppressed?” Kamal decided to bring attention to help end these practices through newspaper articles and other steps, or otherwise it’s “an exploitative relationship”.

The research suggests, based on the interviews,
several ways that academics can cope with the feelings unleashed by these
unsettling settings.

Regular communication through emails, memos or
field diaries can help such scholars process their experiences from the field
(although some found it very difficult to talk about their work because they
felt other parties would be unable to relate).

Enacting “boundary rituals” such as a long
commute between home and the fieldwork setting can ease unsettling experiences
by allowing people to “decompress”.

Another strategy was “letting be” through a
realisation that an individual cannot “save” everyone, so this is a way of
coping by shedding moral burdens.

Giving back through fundraisers, proposals and
books, writing blogs, or volunteering helped others deal with their feelings.
“The need to give back to the communities we study was, for many of our
interviewees, the most pro-active and immediate way to address persistent
feelings of guilt and shame,” the researchers said.

The book chapter ends with some self-searching.

“Exposure to those less fortunate reminds us of
how lucky we really are,” the co-authors write in conclusion. “[We] are
perfectly able to carve out a successful career solving relatively trivial
problems. Question is: should we? Beyond journal publications, if we were to
take seriously our responsibility to ‘give back’, what might that imply in
terms of how we teach, write and organise our careers?”