Researchers working on extremism and terrorism can be exposed to external, internal, and professional harms. | Foto: | Lizenzinformation

How can research on topics surrounding radicalization, extremism, and terrorism be safe and socially sustainable?

Research on extremism and related phenomena such as radicalization or terrorism is emotionally demanding and can even become dangerous, in part because it frequently means engaging with intense, and at times violent, societal conflict. The most recent escalation in the Israel-Palestine conflict is a poignant example of this, in which researchers specialized in antisemitism, Islamophobia, or Islamist and right-wing extremism are expected to keep up with fast-paced developments while simultaneously navigating the emotional impact of unfolding violence. This blog post highlights the difficulties researchers face in this field and proposes suggestions for addressing these challenges at the institutional and structural levels. 

Adhering to ethical standards and ensuring the safety of both researchers and participants are integral parts of social science research. Though many of the challenges and issues involved are not necessarily unique to those who study extremism and related phenomena, there are a number of particularities in this area of study. For instance, researching radicalized movements and individuals often entails direct or indirect engagement with their misanthropic beliefs. This may include monitoring online or offline activities, or interviewing extremist groups and individuals. 

Given the proliferation of extremist and violent content online and the growing prevalence of extremist activities in the digital space, the internet has become the primary “field” for many researchers in this area. In this context, researchers encounter fewer obstacles regarding data collection compared to traditional fieldwork or approaching interviewees. Nevertheless, the shift to online research only intensifies the broader concern that frequent exposure to violent discourses, materials, and imagery can have serious mental health impacts on researchers. What is more, much of this content and activity occurs behind closed doors (for instance, in private online communities) and has, at the same time, considerable policy and security relevance. Consequently, researchers who have established access to or contact with extremist communities, both online and offline, bear social responsibility in two ways. Firstly, acknowledging the need to report accurately on emerging developments and trends while also preventing the spread and reproduction of content that could perpetuate violence and extremist narratives. Secondly, being mindful of the securitized and politicized nature of their work.

Maintaining continuity in research, such that researchers can continue working on topics for longer periods of time, is vital to create and contextualize reliable new knowledge. In order to achieve such social sustainability within the research community on extremism and terrorism, it is essential that research is conducted in a manner that prioritizes the safety of all parties involved, to make sure it does not, by design, lead to burnout or other reasons for dropping out. This includes not only the physical and psychological well-being of the researcher, but also that of the research subjects as well as third parties, such as affiliates or other societal groups involved in the topic at hand. While general ethical standards such as “do no harm” provide useful orientation, they may not be sufficient in multilateral contexts that can involve multiple researchers, communities of interest, and other stakeholders. Therefore, it is important to consider how support can be institutionalized to ensure the sustainability of such research.

Harms and Researcher Positionality

In their study on the experiences of researchers in the field, Pearson et al. identified three types of harms experienced by individuals working on topics of extremism and terrorism: external, internal, and professional harms. External harms refer to security threats, including direct physical threats, online harassment, and doxxing (maliciously publishing personal information online). Internal harms are psychological strains related to such work, due, on the one hand, to experience with or fear of these external threats, or secondary trauma experienced through viewing and monitoring extremist content and communities. These harms can contribute to professional challenges, such as the inability or unwillingness to continue working on certain topics due to harassment, trolling, or trauma. 

The challenges and pressures associated with this research can weigh more heavily for some than for others. For instance, researchers who face discrimination based upon their race, gender identity, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, or an intersection of these attributes, often experience not only the burden of such discrimination but also unique difficulties, such as less employment security and more difficulties in accessing support. In extreme cases, these disparities can lead to disadvantaged colleagues being pushed out of this field of work, thereby perpetuating inequality. 

Furthermore, one’s own approach to research can have an impact. Particularly when conducting research that has the potential to influence policy, researchers have an additional responsibility to conduct thorough, evidence-based work that highlights important societal problems, while also being mindful of the dominant narratives present in discourses on extremism and radicalization. The extent to which researchers engage with this reality can have significant real-world implications for different communities, both positive and negative. The political struggles that researchers work on, after all, are shaped by existing power dynamics in society, which also determine which research is most likely to resonate with different political stakeholders.

Challenges Throughout the Research Process

Researchers face challenges at every stage of their work, from planning and conducting their research to publishing and beyond. These challenges can even prevent certain research endeavors from happening altogether, if researchers feel discouraged from pursuing certain questions due to safety concerns, or if these concerns affect whether or not a project receives institutional support. 

If a project launches, each research question and method can then bring their own set of challenges. Interviewing research subjects can be emotionally taxing, and researchers may face the risk of being provoked, attacked, or threatened by interviewees for who they are or their life choices. For example, female-presenting researchers working on the far-right may more carefully consider how to behave around research subjects who are known to hold strong views on gender roles. This again touches upon the issue of researcher positionality, whereby a researcher’s own values and beliefs inevitably intersect with their work. Researchers often feel the need to establish rapport with their subjects while simultaneously grappling with their own political and normative stances and how these may impact their insights.

Researchers who monitor online communities often come across propaganda or other content that contains or glorifies gruesome violence. While monitoring forums or comment sections, they may also encounter offensive content that could affect them personally. Though online work may technically offer the possibility of increased anonymity, it should be carefully considered when and where this is a justifiable or even helpful measure for engaging with subjects, as part of a larger set of considerations on data sensitivity. 

When publishing research, researchers need not only consider the upsides of visibility for their career as a public voice on the topic, but also the potential risks involved. Showcasing their work may hinder access to potential subjects in the future. What is more, it is beyond their control how results are interpreted and used politically by state actors or by the very communities that they are researching. Finally, even years after a project is completed, new personal developments may trigger seemingly processed challenges to resurface. Considerations for researcher safety – and that of participants, for that matter – should therefore not stop with a publication. 

Strategies and Institutional Support: The German Context

There are different strategies for improving researcher safety and reducing harm when viewing terrorist and (violent) extremist content. For example, VOX-Pol has compiled and regularly updates useful resources on privacy and security as well as researcher wellbeing. An infographic from GNET, VOX-Pol, and Moonshot also provides a comprehensive overview of best practices and strategies for researchers and advice for institutions. Moreover, we have much to learn from civil society organizations working in the field in terms of institutionalizing peer and external support. While there is hence no lack of knowledge amongst researchers and practitioners within the field regarding strategies to reduce personal harm and improve individual coping mechanisms, there is a clear need to expand and normalize support as well as funding, and there are still disparities in terms of what is offered at the institutional level. 

Across the social science discipline, researchers have highlighted the absence of guidance on how to conduct safe research in risky and sensitive contexts. In Germany, universities have implemented ethics guidelines and committees. However, formal review of individual projects by an ethics committee is not mandatory and is typically pursued only when specifically requested by the funder or a publisher. Due to the diversity of research institutions and the various fields of study they encompass, the needs of researchers may differ depending on their projects, leading to certain issues being prioritized over others. Although researcher safety is extensively discussed within extremism and terrorism studies communities, those outside of these fields may not be aware of the extent of the challenges, including among otherwise well-versed committee members. 

Issues of researcher safety can be further compounded by the precarious working conditions in German academia and the expectations placed on researchers, such as the need to engage in knowledge transfer and promotion of their work. As has been noted above, increased visibility can also increase the risk of harassment, leading individuals to feel like they have to choose between their safety and their career. Non-tenured researchers, in particular, may be less likely to seek help due to fear of negative consequences on their career. Thus, raising awareness at the institutional level is the first step to recognizing harms, providing support, and creating conditions for self-organization and peer support.

Beyond increased awareness, in many cases, the willingness and ability to provide support ultimately boils down to the funding structures available to implement strategies. Many researchers in Germany rely on fixed-term contracts and third-party funding, which has implications for institutions and the (continued) support they can offer their employees. We suggest that financial as well as time capacities for these needs should be a part of project planning from the start. For example, in this context, allocated funds for implementing researcher safety and technological harm reduction strategies such as training, psychological support, or necessary equipment like separate devices, VPN access, or software, would be beneficial. Beyond allocated third-party funding, specific funding for collective and individual pathways to resources and support should be included in the budget, when available, at the institutional level. 

That being said, when the basis for such support is provided at an institutional level, researchers should also take advantage of these opportunities by actively participating as well as identifying and communicating barriers to active engagement wherever possible, keeping in mind that such barriers may present differently for different societal groups. Moreover, it is important for supervisors to openly discuss the potential risks with researchers at the beginning of the project and give researchers the space to continuously evaluate their emotional state and the need for intervention during and after their research. Finally, the use of ethics committees and guidelines should be further institutionalized at German universities, along with structures for exchange and guidance tailored to the specific requirements of the relevant sub-field. 

Dieser Beitrag erscheint im Rahmen der RADIS-Blogserie: Debatten zu islamistischer Extremismus. Mehr lesen.

Reem Ahmed

Reem Ahmed

Reem Ahmed is a Researcher at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy (IFSH) and a PhD candidate at the University of Hamburg. Her research focuses on extremism, (counter-)terrorism, and platform regulation. She is currently part of a research project team on social and political practices in dealing with Islamism in Germany (KURI). | Twitter: @RAhmed105
Mona Klöckner

Mona Klöckner

Mona Klöckner ist wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin beim HSFK-Programmbereich „Transnationale Politik“ und in der Forschungsgruppe „Radikalisierung“. // Mona Klöckner is a Researcher at PRIF's Research Department “Transnational Politics” and in the Research Group “Radicalization”.# Mona Klöckner is a Psychologist and a Doctoral Researcher at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt. Her work focuses on the political psychological dynamics of struggles for truth, belonging, and identity. She is currently part of a research project team on social and political practices in dealing with Islamism in Germany (KURI).

Manjana Sold

Manjana Sold ist wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin und Doktorandin im Programmbereich „Transnationale Politik“ der HSFK und im Project Network PANDORA. Ihr Forschungsfokus liegt auf der Rolle des Internets in Radikalisierungsprozessen und der Verbindung zwischen Radikalisierung im virtuellen und im reellen Raum. // Manjana Sold is a Doctoral Researcher at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt. Her research focuses on the role of the Internet in radicalization processes and the connection between virtual and real-world radicalization. She is currently part of a research project team on social and political practices in dealing with Islamism in Germany (KURI).

Reem Ahmed

Reem Ahmed is a Researcher at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy (IFSH) and a PhD candidate at the University of Hamburg. Her research focuses on extremism, (counter-)terrorism, and platform regulation. She is currently part of a research project team on social and political practices in dealing with Islamism in Germany (KURI). | Twitter: @RAhmed105