Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Calling for an End to Sexual Harassment in Fieldwork


At the AAA conference I attended the roundtable discussion “Getting Anthropology Closer to Zero: Collaborating to Reduce Sexual Harassment in Anthropology.” Not being an anthropologist myself, I didn’t know that many anthropology programs require students to spend time in the field. Depending on the school/department, students may conduct fieldwork in another country, sometimes in a remote outpost, alone or with a small team (20 or less), supervised by one leader or advisor. I learned that sexual harassment of women and gay men is a shockingly pervasive, long-standing problem in these scenarios.

Last year a team of four researchers, including two anthropologists, conducted a survey and series of qualitative interviews to understand the breadth of the problem, what is happening, and why it is so pervasive. The survey data were analyzed and published first (Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees Report Harassment and Assault) and a paper discussing the qualitative interviews is being written now. Here are some of the key findings from the survey:

  • People who observed the harassment didn’t know what they could or should do and were also traumatized by what they witnessed
  • Students must be informed how to report harassment if it happens to them or if they observe it happening to others
  • Schools/departments must take significant action to demonstrate a zero tolerance culture; many school/departments in this study do not even mention sexual harassment in their school policies or code of conduct
  • Policies need to describe what sexual harassment looks like because people often don’t recognize when they do it, observe it, or experience it
  • Many victims are members of multiple vulnerable populations (e.g., women, minority, LGBT)

Here is the irony: The ethical guidelines we as researchers hold ourselves to focus on the participants in our studies (be it animal or human) to “do no harm,” but there is little mention of how we treat each other beyond a vague mention of treating other professionals “with respect.” The guidelines of professional organizations typically go into incredible detail about what is expected when we interact with participants, but don’t tell us what, exactly it means to treat each other “professionally.” It might seem obvious that sexual harassment is not “professional,” but in practice, if the offending behavior is not explicitly codified, it is usually ignored, forgotten, or dismissed. Do the individuals committing these terrible actions even consider students in the programs “professionals” and worthy of respect? Doubtful.

The survey found that sexual harassment is rarely reported to institutions for three reasons:

  • Victims don’t want to get the abuser in trouble
  • Victims believe this is an expected part of the job/fieldwork
  • Victims worry what it will mean for their own identity or future since retaliation from the advisor or fellow students is a real risk

Schools that have implemented bystander training have found it to be incredibly powerful; however, because so many institutions have failed to take responsibility for their own role (eg, actually punishing abusers), bystander training alone puts inordinate responsibility on fellow students to stop the abuse. Worse, there is a culture of silence that allows abusive instructors to move from one institution to another with no written record following them to warn new institutions of past abuse. Likewise, there appears to be little due diligence among institutions to check for professional conduct at previous schools or employers.

My Challenge to EPIC

I challenge our community to take action on sexual harassment. Here are some ideas. What are some others? Who will step forward?

  • Organize a panel discussion or salon at EPIC 2015
  • Invite the authors of the SAFE study to present their survey and interview data at your institution
  • Update codes of conduct so that “do no harm” includes colleagues and students (not just participants) and explicitly mentions harassment/abuse of all kinds
  • Offer ethics and harassment training to professionals, corporations, schools, and students

I challenge us all to identify and discuss the underlying attitudes and assumptions that have allowed this abuse to exist in the dark corners of our domain for so long. Did this happen in your alma mater or corporate workplace and does it still today? If you don’t know the answer, you should find out. How, you ask?

  • Talk to students, faculty, and staff before they go into the field about what sexual harassment in all its forms looks like. Ask them about what they have observed and experienced.
  • Find out what the policies and code of conduct of your current/former schools and institutions are regarding sexual harassment and what the consequences are for violation. If it doesn’t exist, ask why.
  • Ask how a bystander or a victim can report abuse and what process follows a report. Is it a process you would want to experience if you were a bystander or victim?
  • Find out what kind of training exists to raise awareness of sexual harassment and if bystander training is available. If there isn’t any, ask why.
  • Ask if your current/former university or institution includes reports of sexual harassment in a student’s or employee’s record and does the school request this information when hiring new faculty and staff. If not, ask why.

If you are not currently a student or employee in an educational or corporate institution, you can still get involved by speaking with your alma mater. If schools know that this matters to their alumnae (particularly those that make donations!) and that potential employers of their students care, it can make a compelling case.

As a community, we must start this conversation and continue it. To my dismay, only six people came to hear the four panelists discuss this topic at the AAA conference. Imagine the difference we can make if the entire EPIC community stood up against sexual harassment—in our workplaces, in our schools and in the field!

Kathy Baxter is a Staff User Experience Researcher in Google Search focusing on on large-scale remote studies, as well as qualitative research, to identify cutting edge opportunities in knowledge acquisition. She has also worked in user research at eBay and Oracle. Kathy holds an MS in Engineering Psychology and a BS degree in Applied Psychology from the Georgia Institute of Technology. The second edition of her book, “Understand Your Users: A Practical Guide to User Research Methods,” will be available March 2015.


Clancy, K. B., Nelson, R. G., Rutherford, J. N., & Hinde, K. (2014). Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees Report Harassment and Assault. PloS one, 9(7), e102172. Stone, P., Crandall, J., Anglin, M., Wies, J., & Clancy, K. (2014). Getting Anthropology Closer to Zero: Collaborating to Reduce Sexual Harassment in Anthropology. American Anthropological Association Annual Conference, Washington, D.C.



Kathy Baxter, User Experience Researcher, Google