The following are notes from a lecture on fieldwork in conflict settings which I delivered last week at the School for Politics and International Relations, Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad (my other lecture in Pakistan by the way resembled this talk, thus no separate notes). I am thankful for the invitation and the engaging discussion with fellow PhD candidates and MPhil students; some of the points they raised are included below.
Before I begin, however, a brief explanation of the picture for today's post: this ambiguously dapper and nonetheless threateningly armed fellow is depicted on the cover of Faisal Devji's highly recommended essay on terrorism and humanitarianism;1 it was originally collected by Thomas Dworzack in Kabul in 2001 (see here). Why do I put it here? Mainly because the picture is a good reminder that social scientists should do their best to refrain from the ready temptation to render those we dislike (such as violent Taliban) as the ultimate and essential other (forgetting, for instance, the same Talibans' aesthetic desires, which they share with all other human beings). Which, of course, leads straight into the thick of my lecture. Here you go:
What is a volatile context? All social research is contentious, because society is a constant negotiation of diversity. Conflict is the default, not the exception for society. The mere fact that people hold diverging, even contrary views on any given issue does not per se create a volatile context; if this were the case, all social research would take place in such contexts. Yet not all contentions and conflicts turn violent - but it is once they do that we speak of a volatile situation. While the contentious nature of society in general has its own important epistemological implications for research (some of which I explored here and there), this lecture therefore concentrates on researching those conflicts which did turn violent - or have the potential to do so.
Even though all volatile contexts are violent, they still differ from one another in many ways - and adjusting to the specific context of a research project is the most fundamental step to do such work successfully. On a basic level, once can distinguish research on conflict from research in conflict; some of the points raised here are specifically relevant in cases where violent conflict is the focus of enquiry, others apply to all research done in volatile situations, even if the topic is (or seems) unrelated to the violence as such. To complicate matters, the line between working on and working in conflict is blurred - as different stakeholders may define the scope of contention differently. Likewise, some of my arguments hold true for any social research - since they concern contentious settings in general, not just violent ones. But I will try to stay focussed, and discuss the following points in more detail: what are the ethical considerations, access strategies, security precautions, requirements of veracity and implications for one's identity which violent settings throw up for social researchers?
Ethical considerations Confronted with a volatile situation, it is easy to be drawn into an activist stance: one would naturally want to decrease violence among those whom one studies, and further understanding and reconciliation in one's fieldsite. And is not the furthering of understanding a particularly suitable job for academics? Actually, I don't think so - not in volatile contexts. In fact I believe that the key ethical principle for research in conflict should be nothing more (but also not less) than "do no harm". I know that this does not sound much, it might even sound disappointingly little. But I believe that much would be achieved if scholars would focus really hard on simply not doing harm with their work. Not violent harm, that is: of course, sensible social research will do harm in the long term, i.e. harm to oppresive social structures and the vested interests of the powerful - this is the democratizing and liberating goal of science (in which I do believe). But such activist implications (or indeed intentions) of academic pursuits should, I suggest, really take a backseat in volatile and violent contexts: they will be there as implications, but they should not be there as prime motivations. The prime motivation should remain to gain a deeper understanding and representation of conflict.
My reason to say this is primarily pragmatic: academics are good ad understanding and representing - but they are not good at conflict resolution. We are simply not trained for this. In fact even those who are trained at it - development practitioners for instance, or peace activists, rarely settle for more than "do no harm". This is why I was ably to borrow this whole principle from activist literature - where it stands as an operational and ethical standard of best practice.2 But if even those professionally trained to improve livelihoods and negotiate volatile settings settle for as little as "do no harm", scholars - who are after all not primarily trained to intervene - should really restrict themselves likewise, even if they are inclined towards activism (in fact especially when they are inclined towards activism). "Do no harm" is the key ethical requirement of field research in volatile contexts.
Once this ethical principle is settled, however, the next question arises: how do you avoid doing harm? I would say firstly by knowing your limits, secondly by constantly re-evaluating your project while doing it, and thirdly by resorting to professional help. It would be good to start any such project with tough questions on limits: is it really worth it (for knowledge production) to do this work at all given the risks involved (do no harm!)? Why do you want to collect sensitive information in volatile contexts? How do you plan to prevent harm, under which circumstances would you opt to abort your project, and how do you intend to report your findings both in print and orally? Each of these questions can make or break a project, ethically speaking. I would thus suggest to think about these questions before you start your field research, and do so in writing - this creates more accountability for yourself (and your institution) than merely "giving it a thought". But do not stop thinking about these questions once you enter the field - volatile contexts are called volatile because they quickly change. Your research needs to adjust to that change, in order to avoid doing harm: what if you don't get good and equitable access - is it still worth it? What if you collect fantastic information, but can not publish them for fear of the safety of those involved - is it still worth it? Finally: to assess these and other questions, the practitioners who invented the "do no harm" principle spent years to produce valuable guidelines and toolkits - and while academia and activism are two different enterprises with two different objectives, many of these guidelines can and should be adopted by researchers. Only once this is done, once you have justified why you should work in volatile context in the first place, figured out whom you might therefore put at risk, and devoured the relevant literature and guidelines, you can ask how you can do such work.
Access strategies The first question which will likely come up next is: how do I get access to (or in) a volatile context? Access is of course a challenge for every research project - you need to gain trust from multiple stakeholders and manage relations with them, be they primary informants, governments, gate-opener, or indeed your supervisors. But volatile contexts are specific in that trust is a rare good therein, and people tend to guard this good vehemently, due to bad experience. At the same time, trust is arguably more important than in contexts where you can rely on procedure, not least for your own security and that of others. There are two key determinants of access: goodwill - and power. In terms of the latter, it is important to know the local power dynamics to work your way through and around them - but also to reflect your own power and refrain from abusing it (people in conflict settings are very good at detecting this - so don't even try). As I wrote elsewhere, however, you need not worry too much about loosing power vis-a-vis your interlocutors by relying solely on their goodwill. You can't force them to contribute in any specific manner anyway - and too often, the power dynamics in fieldwork favour the researcher (in particular in volatile contexts, where he or she often has an exit option others don't have). It is only good that your dependence on goodwill tilts the balance - and research has even shown that empowered interviewees open up more...3
But access has also very practical dimensions. Usually, you will need good local guides and partners to do successful research in volatile contexts - for both access and security. Remember, however, that these partners will never be a neutral factor: neither government nor NGOs nor local academics are neutral. You are not neutral. And you can not change that fact even if you want to - because the reason for the lack of neutrality has little to do with who you are, what your work ethics consist of, or how energetically you pursue the truth (which you should). It rather has to do with how you, your project, and your partners and guides are perceived. Given that neutrality is unattainable since it depends on perception rather than intention, you need to settle on compromises. One good practice is to ask for help through multiple channels: your host and your interpreter (in case you can't work in the local language) need not stem from the same organization, for instance. Similarly, it is of crucial importance to try to work through multiple networks or entrypoints for snowball sampling of your interlocutors - you will likely not obtain neutrality that way, but a necessary multiplicity of viewpoints. Which is precisely what volatile contexts are all about: they are volatile because people hold opposed views on issues and fight for their views with violent means...
This emphasis on broad networks finally has security implications as well: the broader the spectrum of people you receive information from, the better estimates you can make about the security situation. Which brings me to maybe the most important comment on access to volatile contexts: do not just try to get access, but also plan withrdrawal. If you feel uncomfortable, leave.
Security precautions This leads over to the more practical security issues involved. They depend a lot on the concrete project, but there are some common good practices - let me list just those. Firstly, while devising security strategies (keeping the "do no harm" principle in mind), it is important to consider not just your own security, but also that of others, and of your data (which in turn can have impact on both your security and that of your interlocutors). In terms of personal security, it might be sensible to change daily routes and habits, to maintain a good and diverse network of contacts, to take advice from multiple sources, don't draw attention to yourself and trust your instincts. Likewise, it is important to practice basic data security measures: encrypt your data, regularly change good (ie long and complex) passwords, keep work laptop and internet connection separate, and do not send sensitive information over the internet (not even to your supervisor) or process it on public computers. Take special care of your digital recordings, images, calendars, contact numbers and phone logs, and of spatial data (which might be included in your digital images depending on your camera - get rid of them!). Don't leave data unprotected anywhere, even over dinner. And keep your data protected after you return from the field - since your interlocutors might still be at risk. Finally, use pseudonyms and keep clearnames secure, and assure that you can keep any promises of anonymity which you might make.
Apart from these technical best practices, I think it is important, however, not to become a spook. Not only are academics bad activists, they also make bad spies - we are not made for this. Too much secrecy also impedes both trust and access, and also sits at odds with academia's commitment to transparency and debate. In all your security precautions, you must therefore balance two opposed principles: "need to know" (the spook principle) versus "informed consent" (the academic one). Both secrecy and transparency can increase and/or hamper your security and that of others - so weigh carefully! In many academic contexts, it might for instance make good sense to practice the former principle with regards to logistics (your driver need not know what you spoke about in your interview, and your interviewee need not know where you live), while ensuring that those partaking in your research (as participants and as assistants) know enough about it to make informed choices about the extent and nature of their participation - and develop the necessary trust in you and your project. This point about transparency and informed consent leads over to questions of representation:
Requirements of veracity In many ways, the problems of doing reseach in volatile contexts do not stop when leaving the field - they might just about start then. How can you write up your findings without reinforcing stereotypes both about people and about situations? Again there are no clear rules for this, but it usually pays to remember that your own position is only one among many. Take special care of how you represent and treat people you disagree with, and also people you have had little actual access to (such as, for instance, militants). Also, volatile contexts can be extremely stable in some ways (often gendered ways) while volatile in others, and the fascination of violence easily overpowers other aspects which influence your study. Thus pay close attention to seemingly unimportant and overlooked things. For instance if your volatile context is sectarian, dont forget caste, gender, class, level of education - one way to do this is to deliberately look for links across conflict lines, not just along them. If you take this approach, India-Pakistan rivalry might turn out not to be the only important factor in Kashmir (think of sectarian/communal issues); gender might not be the only important factor in a womens rights movement (think of class), etc. Another way to do this is to actively seek out (through your multiple access networks) counter narratives to what you believe will turn out to be your main argument. Do not seek to confirm your emerging conclusions, seek to challenge them: this will ultimately increase the reliability of your conclusions, and also help you to judge what is credible information and what not.
Do not be surprised, however, if multiple truths emerge from your data. In fact, be very surprised if they don't: there is no objectivity in volatile contexts, only a multiplicity of viewpoints. This is after all the very definition of a volatile context: a context in which people disagree fundamentally and violently over some issue. Your job is to highlight and evaluate these disagreements, not to resolve them. Everything else would amount to misrepresentation of a rather complex situation. Which, finally, leads over to the implications of this kind of research for you personally:
Implications for one's identity If the very essence of what a volatile context is - and the practicalities of access and trust on top of it - imply that there can not be one objective truth, what does that mean for you as a researcher? Foremost, I believe you need to write yourself into your research. Reflect about your own positionality and how to disclose it, reflect and disclose the positionality of your partners. Especially reflect about how it was to be othered and put into boxes (and try to use this as a source of data rather than an annoying obstacle - as I argue here as well). Reflect about how your security and safety concerns changed the way you did acquire your data. Reflect and report your emotions of both fear and empathy and repulsion – they will be relevant. But do not merely report them - rather report on how you think they influence your findings. Finally, and especially in volatile contexts, reflect about the fact that people will often see you - as a scholar - as more objective, even though this is not entirely true (as I said before, this is not wrong because you would not try to be objective - your intentions might be good -, but because people perceive you in a specific way, leading to contextual access to data).
All this has implications for your writing strategy and for how you represent your findings: always remember that every social situation is contentious; when you write your dissertation, this needs to show. One good way to do this is through tracing intersectionality. Another good way is to position yourself, not just others. Finally, it is always better to conclude research by asking really challenging questions - rather than providing seemingly objective solutions to a context which likely suffers from too many - and not too few - truth claims.4
Recommended further readings To conclude, let me recommend two good resources to read, both of which also informed this lecture. The first is "Doing development research"5 by Vandana Desai and Rob Potter, which provides very practical advice, and has especially good sections on working with partners and solving logistical issues. The latter is "Surviving fieldwork"6 by Chandra Lekha Sriram et al - which not only provides expert advice and reflections (and gave me a convincing structure for this lecture), but also demonstrates (in its title/subtitle combination) how violence, security, and conflict can draw you into exaggerations. Abstain from those, but do reflect continously on ethics, access, security, veracity and identity - and you will be able to do good fieldwork in volatile contexts. Which above all means doing no harm - but maybe also something more: providing insight, and ultimately changing the world...
- 1. (2008). The terrorist in search of humanity. London: Hurst.
- 2. (1999). Do no harm. Boulder: Lynne Rienner.
- 3. (2006). Fieldworker or foreigner? Field Methods, 18(1), 83–97.
- 4. Daniel Pineu thankfully highlighted this as one way of being an activist academic: asking really good questions rather than trying to intervene yourself. Eliciting critical thinking is always a very powerful intervention...
- 5. Desai V, Potter RB (Eds.). (2006). Doing development research. London: Sage.
- 6. Sriram CL, King JC, Mertus JA, Martin-Ortega O, Herman J (Eds.). (2011). Surviving field research. London: Routledge.