Fieldwork in Government Agencies: Access, Gatekeepers, and Ethical Silences

My first post posed the question: Why study ‘up’?

This post discusses access to the field of government agencies, gatekeepers,  and what I could and couldn’t write about in my thesis. 


My doctoral fieldwork was done at two sites (New South Wales & Northern Territory), in the context of a government agency. The agencies weren’t the same entity, they did, however, perform the same legislative functions concerned with conservation and protected area management. They were also grappling with major policy and program shifts associated with increased levels of co-management (in Australia we call it joint management) and the inclusion of Aboriginal traditional owners of protected areas in meaningful ways.


My initial contact to the NSW agency via the Aboriginal community where I already had contacts. (Read my first post, Remind Me, for their advice on whom I should be studying). My first informant was an Aboriginal agency employee. I was introduced swiftly to the Regional Director of the agency and told that I was welcome to spend as much time as I liked in the office, interview whoever I liked, come to meetings concerned with the new joint management process etc. as long as at end the agency got something out of it.

This openness surprised me. Not only was I able to interview a number of staff including the regional director, I was able to interview the regional director’s supervisor and the Director of the Culture & Heritage Division of the agency at its head office. I was also able to interview lawyers and reseach officers from another government agency whose responsibility was to identify the ‘correct Aboriginal people’ (this is a complex issue so I’m being very general in using this term) to hand the parks involved back to once the long research & legal processes were complete.

In the Northern Territory (NT), contact was intially through the agency’s Regional Manager and its CEO (who had been my boss elsewhere). I  discussed the need to formally apply for a research permit, but this was not felt to be necessary.  I was able to interview staff, attend some meetings, and access some agency memos & briefings on the new co-management arrangements.  A powerful Aboriginal NGO acted as a gatekeeper to many activities, so I was unable to attend most meetings and access other documents. I was eventually offered a full-time position with the agency, which I took up. This meant unrestricted access to meetings, and for my research, created a number of other issues which I will save for another post.

To sum up,  I didn’t encounter significant problems in gaining access to either government department or their staff, and both were welcoming of the research. Both agencies were accustomed to requests for external researchers (albeit, usually science-based research) and had formal processes for dealing with research requests. Both elected not to formalise my request, and offered me resources, staff were free with their time and interested in my research. Both wanted ‘something’ out it – one research findings, the other, my anthropological expertise.  


In-house gatekeepers were initially middle level managers. In both cases, I believe they made an assessment of the risk I posed in being present or having access to priviledged information/situations. In the NT case, this is a highly political and sensitive issue, with some aspects of the entire process proscribed byAboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory)  Act 1976, and the NGOs which administer that Act.

As time went on in the NT, the NGO became the main gatekeeper, not only to myself, but to agency staff involved in this process. There is a long history of adversity between the NT government and this particular NGO (a strong indigenous advocacy body set up under Federal law). Strategies to overcome this included: frequent meetings, transparent lines of communication, secondment of NT government officers to the NGO, out of work socal gatherings.  I was open about my research but my employment as the agency’s anthropologist (this will be the subject of a future post) was extremely problematic for them.

Four years on, the relationships built up between NT agency and NGO are strong and the NGO has relaxed some of its gatekeeper functions. NGO staff were vital in discussing aspects of my research – including being reflexive about how their agency circumscribed progress in joint management to some extent (basically rangers and Aboriginal people wanted to get out ‘on country’ together and ‘do joint management’, but the NGO was very cautious about letting this happen at first).

Other gatekeeping factors: Distance and numbers. The Northern Territory is vast. I was positioned in Alice Springs, and joint management arrangements under the same legislation were happening in at Katherine (1100 km north) and in Darwin (1500 km north). There are 27 protected areas involved – I couldn’t be at every meeting in every location, as much as I might like to. I had to rely on other NT agency staff to ‘fill me in’.

Ethical Silences:

In writing up,  there were things that I was conscious of self-censoring, and things I could clearly not write about. I’ll dot point a few:

  • people’s names and identities ( I am very conscious of writing too much here. These people are real and are my friends/former colleagues/my partner’s immediate colleagues)
  • financial information
  • revealing information/discussions/events that might damage the relationship between the NGO &  the NT agency
  • revealing anything that might damage the NT government (could be used by vocal grassroots opponents  to co-management)

There are more, but these are the big ones.   In other words,  my field diaries and NVivo memos are full of events and discussions which had some impact on my research, but for the reasons above, I have had to leave out.

As it’s my intent to have others discuss these issues in ‘studying up’ – particularly  as barriers to why anthropologists don’t study up I welcome a sharing of your own experiences and insights.

Well, now I am off to sit on an interview panel and thence for the weekend to climb Mt Zeil, the highest mountain in the NT, with my dearly beloved and a few friends.


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