Professor Robin Nelson Leads Research on Sexual Assault in Academic Field Settings
In the sciences, the “field” is a professional space. A general term used to describe locations where academics perform research, the field often means a remote location where scientists spend hours, days, or even months working in close quarters yet isolated from the wider world.
It’s a place Robin Nelson knows well. An assistant professor of biological anthropology, Nelson notes that almost all – around 90 percent – of her fellow anthropologists do field research. Throughout her career, Nelson’s research has mostly focused on child growth and development, specifically in the Caribbean. But in 2014, she published her first study on sexual assault among field scientists.
“We had known there had been stories of people who had been sexually harassed while doing their research. We all knew a one-off story of someone,” Nelson recalls, explaining how she became interested in pursuing this topic. “If we all knew a story, maybe this was a bigger problem.” Nelson and her research team surveyed 666 respondents who had conducted field research in life, physical, and social sciences at sites ranging from museum collections to both domestic and international field locations. Of those respondents, two-thirds reported experiencing sexual harassment, while around 20 percent actually experienced a sexual assault incident.
“These are teams of researchers going out together,” Nelson says. “By far, the issue was an in-team issue.” Both Professor Nelson and her SCU colleague and fellow anthropology professor, Michelle Bezanson – also an anthropologist who participates in field research – agree that there is a “what happens in Vegas” mentality in the field, meaning people take advantage of the fact they are far away from normal societal rules and punishments associated with such inappropriate behavior.
The issue appears to be one driven by power dynamics. Men tend to be abused by other men at the same level as they are, while women tend to be abused by men in higher-ranking positions. The latter dynamic presents an extremely difficult choice for victims of sexual assault to choose between reporting the action (if so, to whom – if their higher-up is the assaulter?) and silencing the incident to avoid risking career repercussions. “A lot of people felt like they couldn’t go back to that field, so they had to go and find a different area of research,” Nelson says.
Though this was groundbreaking research for field scientists, what happens in these settings is not that different from what is happening all over the world – with no preference to region or industry. “This is happening in every single field,” Nelson confirms. “The numbers that we got out of our survey were almost identical to the military, to law, to medicine.”
In relation to other global, recent anti-sexual assault movements, such as the Weinstein effect, #MeToo, and Time’s Up, the research is clearly relevant. “I think #MeToo has some longevity that wasn’t noticed until recently,” Bezanson notes. “But I think people were starting to speak out and act out on others’ behalf before the #MeToo movement in the movie star world, or before Harvey Weinstein. And a lot of this has to do with Robin’s work.”
Nelson is now working on implementing a new code of conduct. The professional organization she and her colleagues belong to, the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, now has a sexual harassment statement. Many people have also emailed Professor Nelson about creating their own code of conduct for individual field projects. Professor Bezanson, for example, has had a code of conduct since around the time that Professor Nelson and her co-researchers published their first article in 2014. It is based on SCU’s code of conduct and includes statements outlining the rules for the field, such as, “Living together as students, instructors, and staff, while traveling, conducting research, and immersion in a new cultural context does not make sexual and gender-based misconduct acceptable.”
Both Nelson and Bezanson emphasize the importance of opening up the conversation surrounding sexual assault. “One of the most important things that we have noticed in the conversations is that older faculty members say things like, ‘I thought this was over,’ or ‘I thought this was done now,’” Nelson says. Unfortunately, for too many “this” is not over, and people like Nelson and Bezanson are making sure that a constructive conversation continues.
Hear Robin Nelson discuss her work on sexual harassment and power dynamics in academic field settings in this Big Q podcast from SCU’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.
Mar 1, 2018
Professor Robin Nelson, conducting fieldwork in Jamaica to collect data on child growth and development. Nelson’s primary research is on child growth and development and parental investment in the Caribbean and Caribbean Diaspora; her secondary research is on experiences of sexual harassment and assault for scholars conducting research at field sites around the world. “As an anthropologist, I am intimately aware of the importance of field research for our data collection, and ultimately our career success.”