Trespassing in Fieldwork

On 3 June 2014 the Technological Natures research cluster sponsored an interdisciplinary symposium entitled “Trespassing in Fieldwork,” held at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford.  Organized by Dr. Peter Wynn Kirby with crucial assistance from the intrepid Sasha Engelmann, the symposium investigated “trespass” in its ethical, methodological and social dimensions, hosting presentations grouped into three at once distinct and overlapping areas: trespassing territory, trespassing the social, and penetrating extra-legal zones.  However, as the day progressed, what emerged was a common commitment to “trespassing” as a form of attunement to the practices of various marginal and/or subversive communities and subcultures, as well as concern over its institutional and legal consequences.


Peter opened with an assertion that resonated through the presentations of Dr. Bradley Garrett, Professor Roger Goodman and Professor Phil Cohen, among others: that all ethnographic and immersive social science is a form of trespass. In navigating other cultural realms, social scientific research involves negotiated identities, the infiltration and inhabitation of spaces, and engagement with and transgression of social codes in order to gain a more nuanced understanding of the life-worlds of varied communities. Such immersive ethnography can have consequences: Brad presented, for the first time, the narrative and scope of his long legal battle as a result of years of research with transgressive “urban explorers” and emphasized the need, above all, to protect project participants.  Similar concerns were aired in George Jaramillo’s talk: should one enter an off-limits underground mine in the Peak District for the sake of understanding the myths, stories, and “extractive geographies” of local communities? And, in the talk of another DPhil student—who prefers to remain anonymous: Given common practices online, is it acceptable for researchers to consider the Facebook newsfeed a public space without the need for informed consent?


In addition to discussing insights drawn from his decades of experience of ethnographic fieldwork, Professor Roger Goodman presented the University of Oxford’s position on cautioning researchers against taking unnecessary risks in the field and the importance of rigorous and well-conceived clearance protocols. Roger brought to light the “duty of care” that researchers have to themselves, their institution, their discipline, and even to taxpayers, arguing that individual decisions to “trespass” can quickly become the responsibility of the institution, with ensuing serious ramifications. He suggested researchers consider the proportionality of the risks taken in the field and consider ethical and risk assessment as an integral part of any form of fieldwork, rather than an obstacle along the way. (E.g., the process of gaining fieldwork clearance, and getting a research visa, comprises a valuable element of project analysis and stands as an important component of the fieldwork.)

Resonant in the work of Dr. David Adams and Dr. Michael Hardman were the everyday and even mundane forms of trespass carried out by “guerrilla gardeners” in an unnamed, infamously flora-bereft northern UK city; subversive horticultural activities on private allotments or motorway medians in broad daylight posed intriguing questions regarding social boundaries, social control, and the nature of subversion.  Dr. Peter Wynn Kirby and Dr. Anna Lora-Wainwright forged relationships with residents of the world’s most notorious smuggling and electronic-waste-scavenging hotspot, in South China, and were able to explore conversion workshops and learn a great deal about “value regimes” and management of risks from informants there despite the constant threat of attack and expulsion.  Similarly, Professor Vincent Nijman stressed strategies of access and the relative banality of endangered wildlife trade practices in a shockingly dangerous-seeming fieldsite in a lawless enclave in Myanmar.  Common themes were the commitment to collaborators, a resolute focus on robust data collection, and the strategic sharing of specialist knowledge to gain trust and access.


The symposium theme was both reinforced and challenged by the (to some participants) startling attendance of a Times Higher Education journalist who managed to penetrate the robust security cordon of the (ever-courteous and professional) symposium security team. His feature article on the symposium appears here.

The presentations and engrossing discussions throughout the day provided impetus to consider and problematize what constitutes “trespass” in social scientific research.  Given the ever-changing technologies of data storage, communication and encryption, as well as the diversity of social scientific research demonstrated by the papers themselves, the ethics, duties, and responsibilities of ethnographic fieldwork merit urgent and open scrutiny.

Dr Peter Wynn Kirby

Senior Visiting Research Associate

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Sasha Engelmann

DPhil Student

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