Working with vulnerable groups and fieldwork partners in an ethical way

Level - Target audience

This workshop is open to students from a broad variety of PhD programmes in the social sciences and humanities (sociology, political science, law, criminology, literature, psychology, pedagogy, history). Currently PhD and postdoc researchers from all these disciplines are actively carrying out fieldwork (sometime in conflict-torn societies) with vulnerable groups. Also PhD researchers at the crossroads of these various disciplines (e.g in refugee and migration studies) and PhD researchers affiliated to CESSMIR will benefit from the training. It provides junior researchers with an in-depth understanding of how their own interventions affect others, and how to be more self-aware and mainstream best practices in their work. The hands-on training will both be relevant for researchers who already did a first round of exploratory fieldwork (and encountered the limits of book wisdom), and to researchers who are about to embark for the first time on a new research project with vulnerable populations.


Prof. dr. Tine Destrooper
Human Rights Centre Ghent University

Other members of the organising & scientific committee

Ilse Derluyn & Floor Verhaege (PP, CESSMIR)


In the past decades, researchers from various disciplines have become increasingly aware of the need to not only write about vulnerable individuals and populations, but to actively include them in the research, either in far-reaching ways through participatory action research (PAR) or in ‘lighter’ ways when individuals are interviewed or asked to join focus groups. Despite a ubiquity of (hand)books on how to do this in an ethical and empowering way, few manage to move beyond general principles of do-no-harm and miss a hands-on approach.

Whether it is in a more far-reaching or a lighter form, working with vulnerable individuals and groups poses important challenges, and requires specific skills and awareness of the researcher. Not seldomly, the researchers are themselves from a privileged background, and sometimes they have limited awareness of the lived realities of their research participants. During their research, they interact with a group of people who are at the same time vulnerable (in ways that are not always sufficiently accounted for) but who also have agency (which is also often overlooked). Risks of this kind of research are manifold: from retraumatization and ostracization of research participants to potential harms to their physical and emotional safety and well-being, and from denying them in their agency as active capable citizens to disempowering them when their information is taken out of their hands during later steps of the research process. This course offers hands on insights on how to navigate and minimize these manifold risks, and to reinforce research participants in their agency.


1. Setting the scene: How to establish a relationship where respondents understand what you can and cannot do in terms of support

2. How to respectfully enter into ‘negotiation’ about the conditions for collaboration with the organisations/actors that act as gatekeepers and gain access to research participants:
  a. What are some typical examples of conditions that ensure mutual benefit?
  b. When – or at what point in the research design – to allow input and alterations?
  c. Does this usually entail a sort of contract and reporting duties?
  d. What is a good model or way of working for relationship and conflict management?

3. Ethical difficulties in working with research participants? (e.g. retraumatization)
  a. Basic approaches to tackling sensitive issues with potentially vulnerable participants?
  b. Are there situations where tensions can arise between researcher – organisation / gatekeeper – participant, and how can these situations be prevented and handled?
  c. Practical considerations: How to create a safe environment? etc

4. Analyzing findings: (How) does respondents vulnerability affect the nature of their contributions/answers?
  a. Are specific kinds of data analysis needed to deal with information obtained in contexts of vulnerability
  b. Can different kinds of input, obtained under very different circumstances, from very different groups of research participants be compared?

5. What after the research? What are some best practices of valorization efforts and aftercare?
  a. What mechanisms should be put in place in terms of aftercare?
  b. How to ensure, at an early enough stage, that local stakeholders have a say on the preferred content and format of valorization efforts?
  c. What is the impact of valorization efforts on time and resource requirements towards the end of the PhD?
  d. What happens after valorization ends? How to acknowledge contributions in academic and non-academic pieces of work? How to reconcile this with privacy concerns.


Every session will be interactive and experiential, focusing on what the challenges are of doing actual fieldwork with vulnerable groups. Two experienced senior lecturers with extensive expertise will be sharing insights from their own research practice, and inviting researchers to apply these insights to their own work: combination of teaching (Zoom: plenary) and group work (Zoom: break out rooms).

Timing and Dates (tentative)

25 +  27 + 29 January 2021: from 9h00-12h00 (online) + 6 hours of independent and group work during that week

Registration fee

Free of charge


Send an email to indicating your (a) name, (b) year of PhD, (c) timing of the foreseen fieldwork, (d) nature and place of the foreseen fieldwork, (e) max. 300 words outlining your motivation to enrol in this course and its relevance for your work. Places are limited, preference will be given to junior PhD researchers starting fieldwork in the next semester. If the number of applications greatly exceeds the number of available places, we will endeavour to reorganize this course next semester. The application deadline is December 31, 2020. You will be informed before January 8, 2021.


  • Hugo van der Merwe is the Transitional Justice Programme Manager at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in South Africa (CSVR). He has developed and managed numerous research, advocacy and intervention projects working with vulnerable groups. He specialises in research design and management.
  • Malose Langa is an Associate Professor and Senior Lecturer in the School of Community and Human Development, Department of Psychology, at the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa and Associate Researcher at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Recompilation (CSVR).

Teaching materials

Will be made available to participants: Research as intervention: the ethics of research in two post truth and reconciliation commission societies (Victoria Baxter)

Number of participants

25 selected participants

Evaluation criteria (doctoral training programme)

100% attendance + active participation + assignments and reflection paper