Caught in the act of protest

Dr Clare Saunders

This project is a Europe-wide study of participants in large-scale street demonstrations. The UK team sought to address three questions: What are the characteristics of protest participants? To what extent can protest be viewed as a reaction against (rather than an extension of) formal politics? Is there evidence for the existence of a global justice movement? The primary research method was the ‘protest survey’ which involved surveying people at large-scale demonstrations.

Ethical issues

The study raises a number of ethical matters, for example around informed consent, anonymity and (although we only selected legally approved demonstrations to survey) participation in potentially illegal acts.

We paid particular attention to the codes for ethical research from both the ESRC and the University of Southampton. Ethics approval was granted by the University of Southampton’s School of Social Sciences Research Ethics Committee before we conducted our first protest survey. Taking advice from the Ethics Committee, we selected only street demonstrations with routes that were formally approved by the police or which were legally squatting land.

All survey volunteers were required to read out required text before interviewing individuals. We sought to ensure that all potential respondents knew that we were from the University of Southampton, that their individual data were going to aggregated so that individual respondents would be anonymous and that we were working on an international, independent research project.

All field researchers prominently displayed their University identification. The survey booklet included a letter to participants which provided the same information. Mail back survey respondents gave consent by deciding to fill out the survey.

The personal data (name, address etc) we requested, should participants wish to receive a research report, was kept secure on password protected computers or in a locked filing cabinet. The personal data were not included in the data made available on the UK Data Service and the Dutch Belgian Archive ensuring individuals cannot be identified from their responses.

One of the demonstrations culminated in violence. We had calculated for this potentially risky situation by agreeing a designated meeting place with the research group team leaders, ensuring the safety of our protest survey volunteers. Another demonstration included moments of reflective silence as a mark of respect, this required sensitivity from survey volunteers by halting the survey process out of respect for the demonstrators and the demonstration’s aims.

Lessons

Informed consent of participants in the protest survey was obtained for interviewees by reading out a short statement; and by potential mail back survey respondents by a) their acceptance of the survey booklet and b) completion and mail back of the survey booklet.

A letter inside the survey booklet might appear to clearly communicate that a protest survey is independent research. However, we discovered that such communication was not clear enough, as some participants missed the point. Care should therefore be taken with branding, and it is best to state clearly – and in large letters – on the front of the survey that ‘This is an independent university-based research study funded by the ESRC’.

Demonstrations are public rather than private events. Whilst it is not necessary to seek the consent of demonstration organisers, it is always polite to inform them that a research team will be attending the demonstration; and to let them know the purposes of the research.

Vigils require special sensitivity; it is inappropriate to interrupt contemplative silence with an interview or survey booklet completion request.

Protocols need to be developed in the advent that legally approved demonstrations turn violent. Student volunteers and research staff should be kept away from harm. It is essential for team leaders to have the mobile phone numbers of all survey volunteers to rally them away from trouble. In our case, I rallied all my volunteers via their mobile phones we retreated to a pre-planned meeting place.

To ensure anonymity, respondents’ names and address are kept only in a secure place and never analysed as part of the data-set. Such data will not be released publicly.