Pregnant or fieldworker; should ‘all foreseeable risks’ be avoided in the field?

Emmanuelle Roth is a PhD candidate in Social Anthropology. She currently conducts fieldwork in Guinea on the aftermath of the Ebola outbreak. She is interested in viral surveillance, epidemic epistemologies and the production of local futures.


Two months before embarking on doctoral fieldwork in Guinea, I underwent standard procedures for obtaining my permission to work away. These entail a fieldwork risk assessment form, an exercise for its own sake where the research student has to demonstrate her capability for imagining and preparing for any risky eventuality in the field. I intended to study how another potential Ebola outbreak is locally anticipated through working with Ebola survivors, medical practitioners and scientists. I sought to give reassurance that I had carefully thought through and mitigated all predictable hazards I could be exposed to: impracticable roads, political instability, and naturally, infectious diseases. I passed the clearance interview and started packing my suitcase. One week before boarding the plane however, my preparations were shaken up by a not-(necessarily)-so-foreseeable life event: I found out that I was pregnant. Amid last-minute travel arrangements and existential questioning, one thought never crossed my mind: that this new state reconfigured my risk landscape for the university. It seemed obvious to me that a pregnancy, in and of itself, would not call into question my departure if, as was the case, I was willing, ready and enthusiastic about doing fieldwork while pregnant. Therefore, I did not reconsider my project and travelled to Guinea. However, three months later, when I disclosed my state to my home institution, I was asked to immediately return as my plans were deemed ‘very high risk’ and could thus ‘not be supported.’

I fought hard for a couple of weeks to try to provide the guarantees that I was not acting unreasonably. I replied to the worried questions sent to me to show that I had mitigated the increased risks incurred: I was insured, had access to routine maternity care and consulted with tropical medicine specialists. As I was being pressed not to appear as a ‘selfish’ expectant mother, that is, a woman who does not prioritize her interests over the health of her foetus, my story started looking like a classic case study in critical medical anthropology. As a matter of fact, the generalization of monitoring and testing biotechnologies in the 20th century accompanied the disciplining of pregnant bodies through risk-focused communication. Furthermore, relatives and colleagues feel they have a moral duty to protect a foetus, if necessary from the mother herself (Abel and Browner 1998; Casper 1998). It seemed absurd to me that the risks I faced in the field as a ‘normal’ (non-pregnant) fieldworker could be mitigated, but that they were now deemed too high. Did the university feel responsible for my safety, or that of my unborn foetus? Codes of conduct for the practice of fieldwork are vague enough to leave much space for interpretation on borderline cases. Thus, concern for legal liability and the institution’s reputation might prevail under the guise of a caring biomedical neutrality.


Risk-taking is ‘part and parcel of ethnographic methods,’ as Karen A. Stewart et al. have it (2009). It is identified as a narrative trope integral to the ethnographic genre. Fieldwork has to be somewhat perilous, or to lend itself to being recounted as an adventure at least. Typically, the imaginary of the anthropologist has been and remains to a certain extent that of a white man confronting tremendous tropical dangers to collect data about ‘savage’ people. The ’writing culture’ turn did a lot to demystify these colonial narrative roots and fieldworkers have more recently ventured into closer, less risky terrains without imperilling their legitimacy. But the influence of the risk framework in relation to fieldwork has been reinvigorated as anthropology has been institutionalized. For a 21st-century doctoral student, the path to the field is paved with paperwork, including the capital fieldwork risk assessment form. It asks the student to “specify the nature of individual hazards likely to be encountered, including the extent of risk associated with these; and the risk control measures to be put in place to minimise the risk associated with these hazards” (University 2016: 2). It is probably not so much that earlier fieldworkers did not contemplate potential hazards associated with their destinations, than that risk-thinking has come to carry the power of governmentality in decision-making and university approvals. This implies that the value of the ethnographic ‘rite de passage’ does not only lie in a deeply unsettling immersion in a foreign culture anymore. The fieldworker has to demonstrate her capacity and willingness to submit her research plans to constraints imposed by the imperative to control and minimize risks, any risk. She is expected to internalize the injunction to make safety prevail under any circumstances. Research practices are thus governed through the ‘technology of power’ that is the risk assessment form. Most disturbingly, in becoming a tool of governmentality, this procedure is endowed by the university with the power of a self-evident truth: fieldwork per se is now a risky endeavour. In my opinion, one would expect a greater space for reflexivity from an anthropology department.

As my fieldwork clearance letter explicitly put it: “concern for your health and safety is a matter of top priority for us all.” This gentle reminder may testify to the increasing “biomedical emphasis of many boards and their cautious assessments of risk and legal liability,” at times criticized as “strain[ing] academic freedom and hinder[ing] innovative ethnographic work” (Fine and Hancock 2016: 262). Indeed conforming to litigious constraints to adjudicate fieldwork permissions all too often comes at a scientific price that is left unacknowledged. In this conflict with my home institution, I read the discrepancy between a (naïve?) ideal of anthropology as a scientific calling and its reality as a job. The professionalization of academic research has indeed forced some universities to emulate the risk mitigation protocols used by private organisations liable for their employees’ safety. They are legally responsible for ensuring that hazards are identified in advance and safe working procedures have been established for students and staff; but the extent to which they can be held liable for incidents is unclear, particularly when they befall students. This opens up a space for arbitrarily and, more important, unilaterally determining when the level of risk outweighs the interest of the research and precludes its pursuit.


This thorny responsibility issue entails significant repercussions for the discipline of anthropology, which places a special epistemological and ethical value on fieldwork. It famously professes a commitment to holism, both in its scholarship and methodology. Lately, the embodiment paradigm anchored that requirement in the very practice of ethnography by turning the fieldworker’s body into a tool of inquiry. By doing so, it unshackled anthropologists from the mythic imperative of ‘going native’: they have to be aware of their gender, class and cultural markers to derive meaning from their embodied encounters with others. This means that, methodologically, the ethnographer must strive to stay/become whole in the field and reflect about this effort to fully understand their interactions. But pregnancy and fieldwork had been declared incompatible in my site. My identity had been split, for I could be pregnant or a fieldworker but not both simultaneously. Some fieldwork was apparently the preserve of able-bodied individuals. I may well be fit and need no particular treatment, I may not even be considered a ‘high-risk pregnancy’ in the biomedical sense, but my place was not in West Africa.

There was more to it: as my request for a new fieldwork risk assessment was ignored, the university seemed to renege on its promise of supporting young researchers in achieving their (idealistic?) ambitions. This would appear all the more important for female students in a male-dominated environment such as academia, where, as pointed out by a recent article in ‘Nature’:

As academic researchers worldwide struggle with a model that places increasing importance on every publication, grant and keynote talk, many female researchers whose careers hinge on remote or challenging fieldwork agonize over the idea of getting pregnant. (Sohn 2018)

Through this institutional call to order, my agency as a burgeoning ethnographer and expectant mother was disrupted. But a deeper worry wormed its way into me: would the university always deny my freedom to decide what was best for me as a mother and an academic? Would it make what it sees as the interest of my family prevail in all circumstances? A paternalist patriarchy was being reproduced in that I was subjected to an intolerable dilemma: if I obeyed, I gave up on my work and the ideal of anthropology as a holistic commitment; if I disobeyed, I was being a selfish mother.

This personal mishap is also an invitation to wonder about the ethical consequences for postcolonial ethnography of expectations that a fieldworker avoids all foreseeable risks. If pregnancy has become a risk-laden condition in our Northern confines, it is a most common life event in West Africa. Do not mistake me, I am not saying that the pregnant female body is not subjected to the disciplining gaze of society there, and indeed social obligations and taboos weigh heavily on mothers’ shoulders. But they are not so much internalized as risk-benefit calculations incumbent upon the individual. They have more of a propitiatory action in countries where the outcome of a woman’s reproductive life is very uncertain and hard to control (Bledsoe 2005). My training in medical anthropology helped me turn my ethnographer body into a gendered affordance that was an embodied asset to ground my own research in larger emic understandings of risk and anticipation. I thus quickly realized that not everyone felt comfortable talking about my future baby without slipping in an Inshallah (God willing), when at all. Doing otherwise would be an affront to divine will and bring bad luck upon us. I surmised that this cautious attitude towards the content of my womb would square well with my indignation at being pulled out of the field because of it. Miscarriages occur for so many undetermined reasons that a Guinean woman can hardly subjugate her life to the governmentality of risk-thinking to stay pregnant. Hence I mulled over ways to share the sad news with my Guinean friends: what would they think? Guinea was not a ‘dangerous field’ where collective security was threatened by violent conflicts (Kovats-Bernat 2002). Would it not testify to our essential inequality if my white body was deemed too valuable to be exposed to the ordinary female condition there? But surprisingly, this intuition was belied by my informants’ reaction. Some clearly saw that the bad reputation of the African healthcare system was at stake in this decision. But most did not share my outrage: if my ‘bosses’ wanted me back, I had to go. Besides, my place was by my partner’s side in Europe. In their eyes, my predicament had nothing to do with unfair discrimination, but with my insertion into a social network to which I was obligated. Maybe they were not wrong after all, and their acceptation opened my eyes to my embeddedness into a set of (work) relationships that my future potentially depended on.


Subjecting oneself to danger stopped being a condition to acquire one’s credentials as an anthropologist. But some still hold that “transcend[ing] the boundaries of the ‘comfort zone’ where one feels safe and secure” is fundamental to the ethnographic experience (Institut for Antropologi, 2011). I was happy to see my ethnographic interactions now differently embodied, in that I had started to exist as a woman that my informants could relate to. In fact, they made me feel safer through their caring questions, food gifts and empathy. They also made sure that I would not expose myself to what they saw as the greatest hazards for pregnant women. Thus I was actually avoiding danger in the field, as it was conceived in the field.

I wrongly assumed that doing fieldwork in Guinea while pregnant was safe enough that it was a matter of personal appreciation whether the risk was worth the potential value of anthropological insights the situation could yield. My disappointment was great to see this opportunity for more situated interactions outside of my ‘comfort zone’ vanish so quickly and without a chance to discuss. It is an understatement to say that risks are contextually and subjectively made. I wish it were one too to say that they are dialogically apprehended. Concretely, doctoral students could expect safety appraisals to be the outcome of a careful collective appraisal of their individual situation. This process should give at least as much weight to fieldwork context as to their own aspirations. In my case, it could have simply taken the form of a new fieldwork risk assessment where I would have been left a chance to show that doing fieldwork in semi-urban West Africa while pregnant was not insane. Doctoral studies are usually a space where students can experiment with a greater freedom (of time, space and thinking) than they may ever have in their later career. If students also have to be socialized into a professional habitus and learn how to fill in forms, would it not be right to leave them some margin to at least question them, at this stage? They should be told about administrative and legal limits to their projects as such, and be allowed to reflect on them as aspiring academics. This can only be done in a constructive exchange with their tutors, which I hold to be most productive when it is devoid of caring judgements about the student’s own interest.



Abel, K. and Browner, C., 1998. Selective compliance with biomedical authority and the uses of experiential knowledge. In: M. Lock and P. Kaufert, eds. Pragmatic Women and Body Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp.310–326.

Bledsoe, C., 2005. Reproductive relativity: time, space and western contraception in rural Gambia. Ahfad journal, 1(22), pp.3–21.

Casper, M. J., 1998. The Making of the Unborn Patient: A Social Anatomy of Fetal Surgery. Brunswick, NJ : Rutgers University Press.

Fine, G. A. and Hancock, B. H., 2016. The new ethnographer at work. Qualitative Research, 17(2), pp.260–268.

Institut for Antropologi, 2011. Risk, Safety and Security in an Anthropological Perspective. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 7 March 2018].

Kovats-Bernat, J. C., 2002. Negotiating Dangerous Fields: Pragmatic Strategies for Fieldwork Amid Violence and Terror. American Anthropologist, 104(1), pp. 208–222.

Sohn, E., 2018. A guide to juggling fieldwork and pregnancy. [online] Nature, 14 February. Available at: <> [Accessed 7 March 2018].

Stewart, K. A., Hess, A., Tracy, S. J and Goodall, H. L.,2009. Risky research: Investigating the ‘perils’ of ethnography. In: N. K. Denzin and M. D. Giardina, eds. Qualitative inquiry and social justice: Toward a Politics of Hope. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press. pp.198–216.

University, 2016. Social Anthropology: Fieldwork Risk Assessment Form.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s