Personal and Professional Boundaries in Fieldwork



Jamie Shenk

DPhil Student | Clarendon Scholar
Department of Sociology
University of Oxford

Jamie Shenk

Personal and Professional Boundaries in Fieldwork

How do you navigate relationships in the field when the field becomes your home? When does a participant become a friend, and what does that mean for your research? 

News from Colombia earlier in the year me worried. Violent protests had broken out in cities and towns across the country; skyrocketing COVID cases had hospital beds filled to capacity; whispers of war were spreading along the Venezuelan border. I can’t stop thinking, I hope Jhon* is ok. 

I arrived in Colombia in September 2019 to carry out fieldwork for my DPhil. Over the course of my time there, I met and interviewed academics, activists, youth leaders, and environmental experts for my research on protest against mega-mining projects. Some people I met only once, but others became closer contacts. Over long bus rides, shared meals, and long conversations, I shared as much about myself as they shared with me. Boundaries between the personal and professional became blurred. 

rd jamie shenk fieldwork

This emotional closeness helped sustain me during my fieldwork. As I struggled to make sense of the data I was collecting and keep myself steady miles away from friends and family, the responsibility I felt to my collaborators—as both friends and research participants—kept me going. Research relationships are not unidirectional; I trusted my participants—people like Jhon— to keep me safe and guide me through unfamiliar territory just as they trusted me with their stories.  

But the question of what happens to these relationships after leaving the field has been difficult for me. Part of my research asks me to interrogate my participants’ motives and the stories they shared. I’ve found it hard, however, to square my personal feelings toward them with the analytical distance needed for my research. What if my research paints them in a bad light? What do I owe them, and what will I lose in terms of personal relationships? These questions feel even harder given how I had to leave Colombia—hastily, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with little prospect of returning any time soon.

I know that I’m not alone in struggling to make sense of these blurry boundaries between the personal and the professional in my fieldwork. A friend who became close to her interlocutors during a years-long fieldwork trip confided in me the guilt that she felt knowing that her research findings would likely paint them in a negative light. Another friend who returned to the same site for multiple research trips told me that she decided to instill hard boundaries. Participants that she now viewed first as “friends” would no longer be included in her research. 

I don’t have an answer for how to navigate these feelings. So far, I’ve used my gut and commitment to research ethics and reciprocity as a guide.