Researching sensitive populations raises many ethical questions, especially the position in which the researcher finds himself/herself within such a population. This is particularly true when conducting research within what can nowadays be considered one of the most studied, explored, scrutinised, stereotyped and mystified community in the West, that is Muslims.
My own experience conducting research within such a population reminds us of the need to not only exert caution when contacting and interviewing people, but also be extremely careful when explaining to other researchers, and the outside world more generally, what the scope of the research is and the fact that there are no hidden agendas attached to it – no matter how sensitive the subjects under study might be. During seven years of research with Muslim communities I have come across outstanding ordinary Muslims, such as grocery shop owners and brave community leaders, as well as very sensitive subjects, including former terrorists who later helped Western security agencies defeat al-Qaeda groups.
As a result of these contacts, not only has my research taken a very interesting turn – one which has encompassed Muslims from a wide variety of theological, ethnic and personal backgrounds – but has also raised questions as to whether some subjects should be left out of the realm of ‘ordinary’ research. Should researchers go as far as to interview former terrorists who are hunted and wanted dead by al-Qaeda members? Should researchers make themselves at risk of being monitored by government agencies as a result of their own work (and due to interviews with former terrorists)? Should the monitoring of researchers be made explicit to them? Should questions be asked by employers and/or law enforcement / intelligence agencies, prior to any potential monitoring be put in place on an ordinary researcher conducting very sensitive academic work?
These are all questions which rest at the heart of how research is and should be conducted in a safe, transparent, ethical and proper manner and which require some serious thinking by other researchers and colleagues. These are also some of the questions that will be explored in this blog.