During an on-air radio interview, the host read a statement by a fellow academic who claimed my research “allege[d] a vast conspiracy of community surveillance.” Throughout the course of my research on an emerging antiterrorism framework referred to as Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), terrorism experts commonly reduced community concerns around governmental overreaching, racial profiling, and constant surveillance as “unintelligent analyses,” “conspiracy theories,” and “hyperbolic rhetoric.” Formalized under the Obama administration and funded by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the CVE framework has sought to empower communities to prevent terrorism by facilitating community policing, mobilizing community members to identify and report individuals vulnerable to terrorist radicalization, and developing programs to protect children from the lure of terrorist recruiters. Despite this liberal veneer, community advocacy groups, civil rights organizations, and scholars have extensively documented how CVE programs intensify the criminalization of Muslim children by deputizing community members as terrorist watchdogs, give law enforcement access to spaces otherwise unavailable to them, and cultivate support for policing institutions like DHS and local police departments now framed as civil rights protectors and national security defenders.

Because the federal government has promoted CVE as an alternative to conventional counterterrorism tactics like FBI stings and preemptive prosecutions, local practitioners need to manage public objections to their work through a variety of discursive and practical methods, such as dismissing community concerns as “alternative facts,” redesigning local programs, and distancing themselves from “first generation” initiatives heavily reliant on law enforcement. In interviews, I often questioned these strategies to better understand this work and raised community concerns I heard throughout my fieldwork. As a result, I often confronted CVE practitioners and researchers who met my interview questions and subsequent reporting with hostility, from threatening legal action to dubbing me a conspiracy theorist. Through these contestations, I quickly learned that understanding how powerful agents discredit critical scholarship is crucial to preparing for such assaults and developing effective responses to them. Rather than mull over these intense experiences in isolation as we often are trained to do, I explore them here in an effort to facilitate a conversation among radical geographers about the ethics of oppositional research and strategies for managing the assaults to our credibility that such research inevitably triggers.    

As a then-untenured professor, I constantly worried how such assaults on my credibility could affect my standing within my own university and the broader discipline. How can reporting on our research strain relationships, “sharpen the very mechanisms of control that we supposedly intend to critique” (Oglesby, 2010: 25), or betray our participants? How do we anticipate and manage the unique ethical issues raised when researching policing institutions like the Department of Homeland Security, “huge bureaucracies” whose workers “don’t see things all the same way,” wield enormous power, and yet are also “actual people, and non-elites at that”? (interview, February 2017; Siegel, this volume).

Despite my research training and experience, I was not prepared to address these emotional, psychic, and ethical quandaries in ways attentive to the dynamic power relations that defined the research process. The literature concerning researchers working “behind enemy lines”—from “positions of more-or-less explicit political opposition”—does not provide sufficient guidance on “managing the structural antagonisms” that separate researchers and their participants (Thiem and Robertson, 2010: 5). Yet, such research accumulates stress, anxiety, fear, anger, and trauma. Recognizing the complexities inherent in ethnographic fieldwork, how can oppositional research be conducted ethically, in ways that respond to the needs and protection of both the researcher and her participants? Attentive to how my own experiences resonate with other radical geographers, I raise these questions and pursue them here in an effort to bring discussions often relegated to conference hallways or afterhours to the fore and to consider how we might respond, collectively, to these ethical, political, and methodological dilemmas.

Understanding these provocations as defining features of oppositional research, critical scholars increasingly have examined the ethics, politics, and emotions of conducting research with “unloved groups” (Fielding, 1993: 148) or “hated individuals” (Fine, 1993: 273) such as police torturers and white supremacists. In undertaking this fieldwork, researchers typically “expect[] to disagree with their subject(s), to take action against it, or spur others to do so,” raising risks unique to this type of qualitative research (Thiem and Robertson, 2010: 5). Despite these opposing viewpoints, many scholars reject the temptation to “construct[] informants as adversaries or the fields they occupy as hostile terrain,” even though political difference defines the research encounter (5). Rather than reduce participants to one-dimensional caricatures that conveniently reaffirm the researcher’s political orientation, this research requires searching for “moments of empathetic proximity” through which “profound knowledge” about the “complex social worlds that we all inhabit” is produced (Han, 2010: 14). To do so, qualitative researchers work to capture the complex personhoods of participants by “recognizing and portraying” – and seeking to understand – “interviewees as complex and even sympathetic human beings” (Conti and O’Neil, 2007: 79). Doing so offers more nuanced insight into the lifeworlds of participants and the institutions they inhabit. Understanding and representing individuals and institutions politically opposed to the researcher, such as the police, demand intentional fieldwork guided by reflexive practices.

Qualitative researchers also have examined how emotions (Blee, 1998), safety and harm (Huggins and Glebbeek, 2003), and antagonistic encounters (Han, 2010) define fieldwork with oppositional groups. Recognizing the importance of these queries within to the field of radical geography, I extend these conversations by examining my own research study that investigated antiterrorism initiatives from the perspectives of national security workers, from former white supremacists to federal law enforcement agents. Specifically, I document how researching the US security state poses unique risks and fosters complex relationships between the researcher and researched, both of which require more attention by radical geographers. I use my own research experiences as a starting point for considering the multifaceted dilemmas scholars confront when conducting oppositional research and for developing tools to plan for and respond to such dilemmas. To do so, I first detail the research study I undertook to better understand emerging antiterrorism initiatives and then examine the unique challenges such research raised.

Studying antiterrorism initiatives to support grassroots organizing

In 2015, the Obama administration formally launched its Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) antiterrorism framework, which it promoted as a liberal alternative to constant surveillance, sting operations, and preemptive prosecutions that defined the Bush presidency. CVE programs have mobilized local communities and law enforcement agencies to prevent homegrown terrorism by combatting online terrorist propaganda, working with individuals vulnerable to terrorist radicalization, and enhancing the protective resources perceived to build resilience to extremism like English proficiency and family cultural adherence. To enact this community-driven national security approach, many CVE programs have called on social service providers like teachers and mental health professionals to identify, report, and work with individuals perceived to be vulnerable to terrorist radicalization and recruitment.

According to police scientists, integrating community policing into antiterrorism initiatives like CVE “manufacture[s] the community intelligence ‘feed’ that offers the best probability of preventing and deterring future forms of such violence” (Innes, 2006: 222). Minneapolis Public Schools, for example, announced plans to hire youth intervention workers who would “spend time in the lunchroom and other non-classroom settings” to “spot identity issues and disaffection” believed to be the “root causes of radicalization.” The Denver Police Department (2016) similarly partnered with Goodwill Industries to develop a school-based mentoring program that would “introduce at-risk youth to the concept of community oriented policing” and “provide a sense of belonging and identity” since “terrorist groups target isolated and alienated youth for recruitment.” CVE programs therefore have facilitated a kind of carceral care work by encouraging practitioners from the helping professions to further take on the functions of and support the police. CVE intensifies, not mitigates, racialized policing by turning ordinary places like school lunchrooms and therapists’ offices into sites of surveillance and by transforming social service providers into proxy national security agents.

To learn more about CVE policy making and taking, a research assistant and I traveled across the United States to participate in public CVE forums, observe online webinars, interview CVE practitioners and researchers, chat with targeted communities, and conduct a document analysis of CVE texts. As a non-Muslim woman of color, I engaged in reflexive practices like memoing and member-checking to account for how my relational positionality shaped this research study. Furthermore, although I designed and implemented this research study independently, I also collaborated with local community organizations seeking to end the racial profiling and police surveillance of communities of color. To support this work, I shared my research findings through community report-backs, while adhering to conventional ethical mandates imposed by university institutional review boards. Community organizations could act on this research in their own ways, whether by planning direct actions to disrupt CVE trainings, writing petitions and appealing to legislators, or refusing to participate in local CVE programming. Through this process, I learned how “studying up” could support grassroots organizing from below by providing insight into the logics, strategies, and practices of powerful institutions that might otherwise be unavailable to community organizers.

Because CVE mobilizes both law enforcement agencies and social service providers who take on policing roles, studying the police meant immersing myself in both law enforcement and civilian spaces. This created unique risks and relationships with participants. For example, when my qualitative research confirmed community concerns about CVE’s role in shoring up support for the very institutions that historically have criminalized Muslims as suspect communities, my visibility as a scholar-activist “irrevocably altered the terms and contours” of the research encounter, most obvious in the loss of access to police participants, hostile exchanges when conducting participant observation, public critiques of my research, and threats of legal action (Han, 2010: 12). The next section addresses these strained relationships and the risks this research raised throughout my fieldwork.

Risks and relationships: The personal and the political

Scholars increasingly have undertaken oppositional research to better understand the police by immersing themselves in policing institutions. These scholars also have investigated the unique risks such research raises, and the complex relationships cultivated with participants working in fields “regarded with suspicion or antipathy” (Thiem and Robertson, 2010: 5). Social scientists, for example, have questioned the feminist practice of reciprocity through which they “return the research” by “empowering the informant and his or her community,” particularly when working with antagonistic groups like the KKK since such reciprocity could fortify racist or other harmful agendas (Blee, 1993: 605). In this section, I explore the ethics of reciprocity in studying the US security state. I also document my tense and shifting relationships with participants depending on their interpretation of my politics, their responses to the dissemination of my research, and their motivations for enrolling in the study. In doing so, I work to advance the ongoing conversations among critical scholars about how to conduct oppositional research ethically.

Returning the research

The ethical question of when and how to return the research quickly surfaced in my own research study, as participants sometimes sought networking opportunities, access to school districts, or support for their work. As a researcher, I needed to consider the ethics of reciprocity throughout my study. When some research participants mentioned they agreed to the study to secure these resources during our interview, I felt conflicted about my ethical responsibilities. In negotiating these requests, I considered how returning the research could support practices and programs that harmed Muslim communities. I also tried to account for participants who enjoyed varying levels of power and privilege. Local practitioners, for example, struggled to obtain financial support and community buy-in, while federal employees operated with more power to enact their CVE programs and institutionalize related policies. Did these power differences affect my responsibility to return the research?

These considerations shaped my on-the-fly decision-making processes to determine when and how I should return the research in the field. For example, I was both sympathetic to and critical of CVE practitioner and Somali elder Aeden Warabe who sought to protect his community from terrorist radicalization and recruitment through youth soccer leagues. As Warabe explained, by “playing soccer and getting strong,” Somali youth avoided “doing bad things” and stopped “paying attention to social media” where terrorist recruiters lurked. Now, Warabe explained, “They have a bright face and they do their homework” (informal conversation, April 2017). I understood these more “mom and pop” approaches to be efforts led by local community leaders, which made me more sympathetic to their struggles to secure funding, connect with more powerful national security experts, and be taken seriously in the CVE policy environment, even if I disagreed with the provision of these social services under the banner of national security (Abdiraxman Mahdi, interview, April 2017).

In my conversation with Warabe, I tried to quickly evaluate my ethical responsibility to him and how I might meet this responsibility. Given his precarious position as an underfunded community leader seeking to protect children, I ultimately decided to respond to some of his motivations for talking with me. At Warabe’s request, I sent an email that introduced him to a state-level practitioner and prominent researcher, acknowledging his desire to expand his work by establishing connections beyond his own city. Because he was a Somali elder working in a disinvested community, I felt some ethical responsibility to return the research as a condition of talking with him about his work while also worrying that doing so could enhance programs that treat Muslim youth as incipient terrorists. Somali youth, after all, rejected the organizing logic that they deserved access to otherwise unavailable social services like soccer leagues as “ticking timebombs” rather than as deserving members of society (participant observation, April 2017).

Despite my willingness to connect Warabe with other CVE practitioners, I resisted other requests by more powerful and prominent state and federal actors. For example, state law enforcement agent Tanvir Rahman admitted in a follow-up conversation that he participated in a formal interview with my research assistant because he thought I could give him access to local schools. Rahman viewed schools as an important site to “build resilience” to terrorist influences and to “reach a broad cross-section” of children (interview, November 2016). Despite Rahman’s driving motivation for participating in the research study, I made no attempts to return the research, as I feared the introduction of CVE into this school district would enhance the school-prison nexus and harm Muslim, Black, and immigrant children disproportionately targeted by this national security approach. I considered it unethical to agree to such an exchange and at no time during our interview did I indicate a willingness to take such action.

All informants participate in research studies according to their own motivations, such as ensuring their perspectives are included, countering dominant narratives, accessing spaces to advance their work, and making connections. We cannot always anticipate these motivations or fulfill their requests. Yet, we must be attentive to if, and how, we can ethically engage the feminist practice of reciprocity.

To guide my decision-making processes in returning the research, I used the concept of harm reduction – practical strategies to reduce negative consequences on communities targeted by CVE – as my guiding principle. Although I recognized my responsibility to research participants, I was not obliged, particularly by university institutional review board standards, to return the research. I therefore limited research reciprocity to measures that would not necessarily intensify CVE programming, fully attentive to the potential effects of such measures. I also tried to attend to each participant’s social locations, recognizing how practitioners occupied various positions of power and privilege in their institutions, in their communities, and in broader society. Using this ethical compass, I felt responsible to connect Warabe with other practitioners while I rejected Rahman’s request. In this way, the feminist concept of returning the research must be nuanced, especially when “studying up.” Research reciprocity, after all, can “empower[] a political vision of racial and religious hatred” (Blee, 1993: 606).

Throughout my fieldwork, I struggled to make these decisions, particularly as I came to appreciate and learn from CVE practitioners. Like other researchers engaged in oppositional research, I came to view participants in positions of power empathetically. In one instance, Rahman called me after a news story included my commentary that CVE “relied on racial and religious profiling.” In reasserting his stance on CVE, he insisted, “I want to do the right thing. I want to do a good job.” I understood, and even sympathized with, Rahman’s concerted effort to protect children from terrorist radicalization through CVE programming, even if social scientists have demonstrated how this national security approach has harmed communities. My fieldnotes often reflected my conflicted and fraught interpretation of Rahman’s work, noting that I found him to be a “sympathetic character” who debated the merits and critiques of CVE with me, who listened to my concerns, and who expanded CVE programming. I constantly questioned what responsibility I had to Rahman and how I could represent his work and his interpretations of that work in a nuanced way. Determining how and when to return the research therefore is a fraught and tense process with no easy answers. Critical geographers are well-positioned to open and advance discussions about our ethical responsibilities when studying the police and policing institutions, especially as national security policies increasingly mobilize community members and social service providers to take on the work of the police.

Relationships, rapport, and research

Some researchers conducting fieldwork “behind enemy lines” have noted the difficulties in establishing trust and building rapport with participants politically opposed to them. Kevin Gould (2010: 15), for example, reports that he “often felt unnerved” and “uncomfortable engaging on a daily basis with the authors of this neoliberal [land] policy [in Guatemala].” His fear of policymakers detecting his political opposition shaped his behavior in the field such that it became difficult to listen closely and speak clearly to participants (16). In her ethnography of proselytizing missions led by conservative Korean/American evangelical Christians, Ju Hui Judy Han (2010: 12) kept her dissenting opinions to herself and, “as long as [she] did not speak up,” research participants assumed to be in agreement with her politics. In her ethnographic fieldwork in a primarily Muslim village in Sudan, Cindi Katz (1996: 173) similarly struggled with being “untruthful for strategic reasons,” like passing as Christian, as she recognized that she was deceptive “in the very areas in which [she] expected people to be honest” with her throughout her fieldwork. On reflection, Katz (1996: 172) determined that such strategies were “almost unforgivably lazy,” even if she feared such self-disclosure could have undermined her fieldwork and distracted from her focus on practical responses to capitalism. Scholars also have examined additional ethnographic strategies such as “keep[ing] the object [of study] at an arm’s length in order to gain any knowledge” (Han, 2010: 13), transforming feelings of outrage into “more acceptable emotions of curiosity or puzzlement” (Blee, 1998: 383), and making jokes about being a spy to diffuse tensions (Gould, 2010). Qualitative researchers have deployed these strategies to build rapport with participants and manage their relationships in otherwise tense social settings.

My own experiences in the field resonate with these struggles, particularly as participants differentially interpreted my intellectual politics, purposes of my research, and national security expertise. Warabe, for example, viewed me as an ally, saying he was “eager to work with [me]” and develop connections with other CVE practitioners (personal communication, April 2017). Assuming our conversation could lead to future collaborations, he sought to demonstrate how his work differed from other local programs that failed to establish “community trust and legitimacy.” Understanding prevailing CVE critiques, Warabe used our conversation to respond to these concerns and show how he planned to address them. As with Warabe, I was able to build rapport with some CVE practitioners who sought resources, collaborations, or connections through their participation in this research study and who viewed me as politically aligned with their work.

Other participants, however, viewed me with suspicion, sometimes preempting conversations about CVE critiques, talking down to me, or directing the conversation to assert certain points. These interviews felt like a choreographed dance, where we each understood our political differences and our possible motivations for engaging in this research study. We maneuvered around each other’s arguments, trying to raise counterpoints in a friendly yet firm exchange defined by our clear political opposition. Such interactions felt more like intellectual debates rather than conversations that offered insight into the lifeworlds of national security workers. On one occasion, a participant requested that we “talk offline” (off-the-record) when he slipped into uncensored commentary. These occasional slippages were smoothed over through specific strategies, like going off the record, telling jokes, or even calling me to correct their statements. Other times, participant interviews conflicted with their public performances of their work, as in conference presentations or workshops, emblematic of Goffman’s (1959) front stage/back stage dramaturgical analysis of how people perform differently in different social settings.

Throughout my fieldwork, I struggled to establish trust and build rapport with participants. These tensions intensified as I began reporting my findings in public media. Over time, it became more difficult to align myself with participants and my public commentary served as a barrier to developing relationships with participants and maintaining access. Some declined interviews or simply stopped responding to my inquiries.

Policing institutions also can deploy strategies to limit access. The Chicago Police Department (CPD), for example, denied a Freedom of Information Act request seeking active contracts with social media monitoring companies, arguing that “releasing information concerning social media tracking software has led to lasting damage to the Department in the past.” The department reported that “In the wake of news that CPD utilized such software to track open source social media accounts, numerous users of social media sites took action to restrict public access to their accounts. Given that these social media monitoring tools have great worth in identifying victims and perpetrators, it would be incredibly damaging to the Department’s police powers if these tools were publicly identified.” A researcher’s practices therefore can impact future access, even long after she has completed her fieldwork. Policing institutions also learn from these exchanges by altering their practices and limiting access to information to protect their police powers.

My dissemination of my research findings also strained these already fraught relationships with participants and others in the CVE policy world. One tenured professor, for example, directed his complaints about my research to my provost and dean, both of whom held the power to discipline me. One potential participant seemed eager to organize a focus group with his law enforcement colleagues but stopped responding to my phone calls and emails after he met me at a CVE event. When community organizers disrupted one CVE training, a participant aggressively stood in front of my seat, sneering, “I know you’re with them [the protestors].” His comment effectively intimidated me and, sensing the withdrawal of his consent to observe this public event, I eventually left the workshop.

Like reducing my findings to a “conspiracy theory,” these threats to my integrity, employment, and research posed risks unique to oppositional research. Yet, university institutional review boards often fail to consider the unique risks researchers, not participants, face when conducting research with elite actors and/or powerful institutions like the police. Within academic spaces, these conversations typically are relegated to hallways chats, private conversations, or internal struggles, instead of open discussions about negotiating these risks and managing threats to our personal and professional lives. Rather than using these attacks as red badges of courage, radical geographers can use them to elevate community struggles. More specifically, radical geographers can create intentional spaces to discuss these risks and strategies for managing them. Because attacks on critical scholars can leave us isolated and thus more vulnerable, initiating these conversations can protect scholars and challenge academics who attack our research by leveraging their status as tenured white men. Lastly, human subjects regulation rarely remedies the power inequities inherent to qualitative research and typically protects universities rather than participants or researchers. However, such collectivizing can pressure institutional review boards to formulate new policies that consider complex ethical issues while working toward creating alternative forums to evaluate a research study’s ethics, risks, and potential harms. Such collective strategizing can advance critical scholarship that supports community struggles against state violence.


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Nicole Nguyen is associate professor of social foundations of education at the University of Illinois-Chicago. She is the author of A Curriculum of Fear: Homeland Security in US Public Schools (2016, Minnesota) and Suspect Communities: Anti-Muslim Racism and the Domestic War on Terror (2019, Minnesota).