Are we entering a post-fieldwork era? The challenges of the neoliberal university and the digital revolution to fieldwork research

26 Sep

In many ways, research into peace and conflict has never been in a better place – particularly in the sense of the growing prominence of critical perspectives, and in growing trends towards inter-disciplinary approaches to research and teaching. Some of the research that one hears about at conferences or sees in the journals is genuinely innovative and infused with energy, critique and impatience with existing paradigms. And much of the research, often that conducted by PhD students, is based on innovative and courageous fieldwork that involves immersion in conflict-affected contexts, and a deep passion to try to understand local communities and dynamics.

The neoliberal university
But, behind these outwardly good signs, it is possible to notice increasingly strong signs that universities are shying away from fieldwork. Modern universities are corporations. Like all corporations they are risk averse. Their governance systems, and indeed raison d’etre, are increasingly given over to neoliberal ways of thinking and management. This is having a direct impact on field research. For very laudable reasons, universities are paying attention to research ethics and sensitivity, and to issues of safety, in relation to fieldwork. These are important issues, and the implications of poor research practice are immense: endangering the researcher and the researched, lack of sensitivity towards the researched, unnecessarily leaving the expectation among communities that the research will lead to standard of living improvements etc. There are plenty of horror stories out there of how researchers have broken every rule in the book.

There is a danger, however, that attempts to control bad practice actually take over the commissioning, design and possibility of field research. Ethics committees vary enormously from institution to institution, but one hears many instances of the following on the grapevine:

• Ethics committees populated by non-subject specialists who simply do not see the point of the type of fieldwork required by many studies of peace and conflict contexts;
• Ethics committees whose starting point is prejudice against field research (rather than seeking to facilitate better research);
• Ethics committees mired in university bureaucracy of sub-committees, delays and the administrative pointlessness that the research inactive excel in;
• Cases in which ethics committees prevent students going back to their home countries to conduct research – because apparently the Ethics Committee knows the context better than the citizen.

Although hardly a scientific survey, I am picking up more and more institutional resistance to fieldwork. There is a sense in some institutions, especially among the increasing large and empowered managerial class, that fieldwork is an insurance and reputational risk that they can do without. And if the institutional and bureaucratic obstacles to fieldwork are just too great, it becomes rational for researchers to seek easier routes. The anti-intellectualism of the modern university is something that should concern us all.

Data and technology and the avoidance of fieldwork
The shying away from fieldwork is also being reinforced by two other trends – one long term, and the other quite recent. The first of these is the long-term dominance of econometric and quantitative approaches to the study of peace and conflict. This has a long, and very commendable, history. Quantitative research has brought much to our understanding of the triggers of conflict, and possible ways towards de-escalation. Indeed, it is worth noting that the founder of modern Peace Studies, Louis Fry Richardson (who was studying peace long before Johan Galtung was born) was a natural scientist. There is no doubting, however, the prominence of econometric, political science and rational approaches to many studies of peace and conflict. A quick perusal of the contents pages of ‘leading’ journals and the conference programmes of many relevant professional associations reinforces the idea that conflict scientism is an extremely well entrenched mode of study. Much of this is connected to wider disciplinary conflicts over what constitutes a ‘proper’ approach to the subject matter.

Many quantitative studies do not involve fieldwork or the actual gathering of data (the are significant exceptions, such as survey research). Instead, much of the evidence comes from pre-existing sources such as government or INGO statistics or news reports. The key point is that many quantitative researchers do not engage in fieldwork. As a result they risk being separated from the context so completely that the conflict zone is rendered into a series of statistics and indicators, bereft of contextualization. Of course, this is not always the case. Many quantitative scholars of peace and conflict mix their econometric approaches with fieldwork, and they are well able to contextualize and humanize their studies. But many do not. The data becomes the start and the end of the project. Ever more elaborate ways of interrogating the data are developed. Methodological fetishism takes over. The risk is that the ‘data’ becomes an end in itself and is separated from its origins: people living in situations of duress.

Quantitative inquiries into peace and conflict are assisted by a second trend, this one accelerating sharply in recent years. Here I refer to the electronic and digital revolutions in the gathering and interrogation of data. This has massively increased the reach and power of quantitative researchers. It has opened up new fields of study, for example the GIS mapping of the spread of conflict. There is a danger, however, that technological research opportunities are used instead of more traditional methods of fieldwork such as talking to people and observing communities. In this scenario, technological fixes occupy space previous open to qualitative research. It is possible to think of research by drone, the scooping up of big data, a reliance on Skype and Facetime and a host of other ways that involve the taking of data in conflict-affected areas without the researcher actually going there.

This mirrors the ‘crisis of access’ (reference Oliver Richmond) that many states and organisations in the policy and practitioner worlds face. They are unable to access Iraq, DRC, Ukraine, Syria, Gaza and many other conflict-affect areas. Policies are enacted and statements are made without effective means of communicating with people in the area to find out their needs, aspirations and living conditions. It is the logical conclusion of the ‘bunkerisation’ (reference Mark Duffield) of NGOs, INGOs and diplomatic missions as they try to minimize security risks.

It is worth stressing that the intention of this blog piece is not to take cheap shots at quantitative research. Lots of ethical and practical constraints attend quantitative studies – and often the research outputs are extremely valuable. They bring scholarship to places that qualitative research has difficulty reaching (e.g., large scale comparison or the verification of trends over time). Instead the intention is to highlight the possibility of a growing retreat from fieldwork.

We should not fetishise fieldwork. There is much bad practice in fieldwork. The notion of ‘the field’, and attendant epistemological assumptions, needs to be critically unpacked. There is a good deal of narcissism, ego and self-indulgence in fieldwork. There is also the nonsense of the ‘experiential turn’ where by scholars pretend they can somehow share the experiences of war-affected populations (before flying out of there and back to a comfortable seminar room).

The chief concluding point is that we should defend fieldwork. There is a danger that it becomes a declining part of our research repertoire and thus increases the already burgeoning divide between the researcher and the researched.

(I am very grateful to colleagues at a Making Peacekeeping Data Work for the International Community workshop at Manchester earlier in the week. My thinking has been very influenced by our discussions).


4 Responses to “Are we entering a post-fieldwork era? The challenges of the neoliberal university and the digital revolution to fieldwork research”

  1. Babatunde Afolabi 26/09/2014 at 11:49 am #

    Insightful piece.

  2. Jen 27/09/2014 at 2:43 am #

    Yes a thousand times. My experience with many ethics procedures are that they are increasingly based on risk analysis (and insurance concerns) rather than being a process that facilitates ethical research on topics of great importance in areas that happen to be more dangerous (though danger is sometimes lazily defined using often highly political or even out of date foreign office websites or outright racist views on the the ‘global south’). Having one of my PhDs (and me by extension) chastised by a physical scientist at an ethics review on a point of methodology (nothing to do with ethics) and their seemingly uninformed personal opinions about country x was one of many painful moments.
    (Discipline and country omitted for reasons of confidentiality!)

    But the fetishization of FW is worth more discussion in our field I think. Despite our critical moments, there is still a great deal of positivism lurking which is ok in some regards but also may contribute to a politics of knowledge production that I am not so comfortable with.

  3. Dr. X 22/10/2014 at 8:19 am #

    Here here. Recently, I made a successful internal bid for cash to go to Somaliland. I was told after the grant was made to do a risk assessment, which the H&S person helped me with. He considered it ‘sound’. Then Finance heard about the trip and decided Somaliland was too dangerous. Yes, Finance. Then it went to the Chief Finance Officer, who is unable tooffer salutaitons in any correspondance – who made the same remarks, referring to FCO travel advice – which refuses to acknowledge Somaliland’s de facto independence from Somalia.

    I offered to sort out my own insurance. My Dean and academic lead weighed in with me, so the Vice Chancellor stuck his oar in and said I was to be refused permission to go. The money was withdrawn; all my research plans were made redundant; and my research career, which is based around areas the FCO seems consistently to think are too dangerous for travel, is now is grave doubt. The note I got from higher up remarked on insurance risks and ‘reputational risk’ to the East Midlands institution I work at. At the end of the note, they referred to an obligation to protect me: after their reputation and financial considerations.

    I wonder where all this fits in my Professional Development Plan: a process designed to monitor and discipline staff labour as much as it is to help us ‘realize our ambitions’. Employer: Why haven’t you published 4 items for the REF, Dr. X? Me: You wouldn’t let me do the research. Employer: Then we suggest you research something else that you have no interest in, passion for and knowledge of, and which will likely hold back your career progression, promotion, salary and pension. Me: Thanks.

    The business model in general is necessarily risk-facing (see how the language rubs off?). But UK universities are increasingly risk-averse. The neoliberal HE project seems set to fail because it is too cowardly to conform with its own neoliberal practices. Where do we go from here?

  4. uolscid 06/11/2014 at 2:32 pm #

    Reblogged this on Security, Conflict and International Development (SCID) and commented:
    In advance of the 2015 SCID Symposium on Researching and Working in Conflict-Affected Environments, and for those of you working on your dissertations and research proposals, considering PhDs, or otherwise engaged in research, I hope you find this blog post by Roger MacGinty of interest.

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