Researching sensitive topics in African cities: Reflections on alcohol research in Cape Town

Mary Lawhon*, Clare Herrick, Shari Daya

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Recent African urbanist scholarship has suggested the need to delve deeper into our understanding of the everyday lived experiences in African cities. While this is essential for our understanding of African cities, researching lived experiences is fraught with methodological and ethical challenges. This is true for any topic when the researcher-subject gap is shaped by differences in nationality, class, race, norms and education, but especially so for the study of sensitive topics such as violence, sexuality, HIV/AIDS and xenophobia. Geographers have begun considering the ethics of researching particular sensitive issues, but not yet fully engaged with the international literature on the ethical and methodological challenges of researching such topics. To begin filling this gap, we reflect on experiences researching the lived experience and policy engagement with alcohol in Cape Town. We seek to apply and adapt the literature on sensitive topics specifically to the South African context. Our paper examines challenges which arose during the fieldwork and strategies developed to mitigate these. We emphasize how examining a topic with strong normative associations, which is bound up with illegality and community divisions, creates a need for particular attentiveness to research methods.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)15-30
Number of pages16
JournalSouth African Geographical Journal
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2 Jan 2014


  • alcohol
  • Cape Town
  • methods
  • sensitive research
  • urban policy


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