An amazing description of how sociologists who wanted to do field studies in Belfast during the height of The Troubles were put through some seemingly routine but terrifying vetting by the IRA to check they were up to the job.
Burton worked extensively amid the violence of Belfast and woke up one morning to find someone was pointing a sub-machine gun in his face and suggesting he was a “Four Square Laundry job” an allusion to being an army spy.
Thanks to his dangerous and frightening experiences in West Belfast, Frank Burton’s ethnographic research on Northern Ireland is considered legendary. At first glance the incident Burton describes would seem mad to anyone who has not spent time living and working in the Catholic ghettos of Belfast. However, as alarming as this event may seem, it speaks more to the rapport Burton established with his respondents than to the perils of fieldwork. In actuality this was a prank brought about by one of his Irish Republican Army (IRA) informants.
The hazing of researchers is a common practice in Belfast, and anyone who conducts inquiries of this nature is bound to collect a few such “war stories”. The obvious reason for such a vetting is that the IRA feared that a British undercover operative disguised as an academic would infiltrate the organization. Having said that, I believe that researchers are not only checked out as potential spies but also tested to see whether they have the “salt” to stick it out when the political atmosphere makes day-to-day life difficult. In other words, the researcher has to prove that, when placed in a life-threatening situation, even for just a moment, she or he won’t simply pack up and go home.
How weird that amongst all of the violence and subterfuge, the IRA was actively managing its policy on collaborating with ethnography researchers.
Dowler herself also worked as a sociologist amid the The Troubles and has more than a few stories of her own to tell – not least having to flee an assassination attempt on one of her interviewees.
However, she wisely notes that the greatest risk was not to her, but to her participants, who were giving sensitive information to her in the name of impartial research.
Despite the fact that the hazing was extreme, you can understand why trust was considered important.