When Overt Research Feels Covert: Researching Women and Gangs in a Context of Silence and Fear

  • Ellen Van Damme Leuven Institute of Criminology, KU Leuven
Keywords: women & gangs, semi-ethnography, Honduras, violence, ethics


This paper discusses the tension between ethics in theory and ethics in practice, along the continuum of overt and covert field research. I argue that complete overt research is not only unfeasible, but can even be dangerous or harmful to the people we research and the researcher. Within this discussion it can be stated that the formal standardized requirements of the ethics committees actually undermine our ability to act ethically. For this reason, I argue that there is a need to focus on a virtues based approach and reflective stance regarding ethics in the field. I use the case of Honduras, where I conducted field research on the role of women and gangs, to discuss this argument. High levels of insecurity in Honduras create a context of fear which prescribes certain rules of engagement with the wider political economy of violence, and specifically on community interactions with gangs (Hume 2009a; Wilding 2012). My research shows that there is a silent agreement among the people living in neighborhoods with gang presence not to engage in gang-related discussions. Local organizations also prescribe a strict code of conduct in the field, which prohibits the use of crime, violence and other related concepts. This raises key practical and ethical questions for researchers, not least – how do we research that which is silenced? The aim of the paper is to critically discuss the relation between university ethics processes – ethics ‘in theory’ – and street ethics or ethics ‘in practice’, when conducting (participatory) observation in urban neighborhoods and prisons in Honduras.

Author Biography

Ellen Van Damme, Leuven Institute of Criminology, KU Leuven
PhD fellow Research Foundation-Flanders (FWO)