Archive | February, 2015

Handing victory to IS

24 Feb

I have been in the US for a few days. When there, I was exposed to quite a few hours of Fox News, CNN and other news channels as I was in airport lounges, hotel lobbies, restaurants and bars. Usually the sound was turned down, but it was very clear what the top story was: IS. The news channels seem obsessed with it and had the same footage on a loop as well as ‘expert’ commentary from people who, I suspect, rarely leave Washington. If an IS strategy is to gain media coverage in the homeland of their enemy then they have won that part of their war – for free.

This is not to say that IS do not deserve attention. They are capable, violent, hold territory and are engaging in despicable acts of cruelty. Although such claims can also be leveled at President Assad or Boko Haram – neither of whom command a fraction of the media attention (from what I can see).

The obsession (and it did seem to be an obsession) with IS seemed to be playing into their hands. There is no doubt that the US, its allies and proxies will use military means to degrade and possibly defeat IS. In the meantime, what is the point of massaging the IS ego? The extent and tenor of the media coverage seemed intent on inflating a regional threat into a global existential one.

So what explains this obsession? Part of it can be put down the IS releasing a new promotional video. Although why US news corporations decided to do IS the favour of running this on a loop is beyond comprehension. Part of it can be put down to timing: IS have kept up a fairly regular tempo of high profile atrocities (but then so have President Assad and Boko Haram). Part of it can be explained by the fact that the US is actually at war with IS in the form of airstrikes and several thousand military advisors. Although coverage of what the US and its allies were actually doing was slight.

But one reason worth considering for the US media obsession is structural: it is an outworking of the construction of a security state. A national security mind-set, and the infrastructure and material power that go along with it in terms of Homeland Security and massive security budgets, means that a security lens is the default setting. IS are merely the latest script fodder, but the plot is long-established. Maybe the state is securitised to such an extent that it needs ‘the other’ in order to justify its current configuration. If that is the case, then IS (and Al Qaeda before them, and the Soviet Union before them) have won.

Fieldtripping: The ethics and practicalities of student fieldtrips

2 Feb

Many years ago, when I was a rookie lecturer, I went on an MA fieldtrip to Croatia. There were 29 students, the course leader and myself. I am still embarrassed at the nature of the fieldtrip. All 31 of us loaded onto a bus that toured ruined municipalities. We would stumble off the bus, take pictures of bullet-marked houses, walk around destroyed factories, and speak with town mayors. Then we trooped onto the bus again and went off to the next municipality to repeat the exercise. I have been troubled by the notion of student ‘fieldtrips’ ever since. There is a distinct danger of conflict tourism, of the voyeuristic peering at the misery of others before jetting home.

Over a number of years I worked with the indefatigable Alp Ozerdem to re-organise the fieldtrips that we ran and make them more conflict-sensitive, and place an emphasis on research techniques. In the classroom, Alp made students practice interviews and observation techniques so that the fieldtrips were much more sensitive. We also divided the class into small groups of four that each focused on an issue – such as livelihood or resettlement – and charged them with organizing their own interviews.

At St Andrews, with others, I continued this re-invention of the fieldtrip, away of the legacy of colonial anthropology, and tried to turn it into a site to interrogate the power relations between the researcher and the researched. Now at Manchester, as we are making a fieldtrip a centre piece of our MA in Peace and Conflict Studies, I am still thinking about the ethics and practicalities of bringing students into a conflict-affected area. I posted a few questions about this on Facebook not so long ago and some of the points here draw on the comments that I received.

Reinventing the ‘fieldtrip’
My Manchester colleague Oliver Richmond questioned the term ‘fieldtrip’ because of the colonial and developmental baggage that comes with it. Certainly the term conjures up images of pith helmets, maps and pointing at ‘the natives’. Maria O’Reilly from Goldsmiths at the University of London came up with the very good idea of a fieldtrip in the UK. This has lots of practical advantages (no need to get visas, lower carbon emissions etc.) but also allows us to think about our own positionality and why field research always has to be ‘over there’. It encourages us to think of the power relationships between the researcher and the researched. Oliver Richmond, Anne Hayner (Kroc Institute, University of Notre Dame) and Sweta Singh (South Asian University) all mentioned the importance of working with local organisations, teaming up with local universities, and trying to get beyond the ‘parachuting in’ mentality. Walt Kilroy from Dublin City University suggested that ‘the researched’ be asked for their feedback: did the researchers perform their tasks sensitivity and effectively?

All of the above are very good tips but I still hear of university ‘fieldtrips’ of forty or fifty students traipsing around conflict-affected countries. It is important that students and researchers can have access to conflict-affected areas but it seems to me that we have to go much further in making these trips sensitive. We also have to be realistic. While we can have good intentions and use the word ‘ethnographic’ as much as we want, a fieldtrip (or whatever we call it) is still a time-limited exercise: we come in and leave. We also have to realize that many of us are curious about conflict-affected societies and that it is difficult to get beyond the sight-seeing mentality.

But, if we are organising a fieldtrip, there are guidelines that we can set down in the hope of maximising both sensitivity and the pedagogic value of any trip. Let me restrict myself to five points.

1. Any student fieldtrip should be a working trip. Students should be set discrete objectives, linked to an assignment. The working nature of the fieldtrip starts well before departure with study of research techniques and the context. It continues during the trip with students setting up meetings, conducting interviews, being mindful of the ethics of research, and sharing notes within groups. And the working nature of the trip continues after students return with the interrogation and use of research results, reflections on how they were gathered, and writing thank you notes.
2. The process is more important than any research results. A short student fieldtrip will not be an occasion in which to gather huge amounts of data that is robust and comparable. By their nature, student fieldtrips are time limited. The emphasis should be on the research process rather than a data harvesting exercise. It is about road-testing research techniques that have been discussed in class.
3. Practice beforehand. It seems important that we encourage our students to trial research techniques before they embark on a trip. For example, I have often noticed how rude people can be when they accompany a tour guide. They start off enthusiastic, but half way through a walking tour they get bored, wander off, and are obviously not listening to the guide. So I organise a walking tour around Manchester with an amateur historian so that the students can think about active listening, the simple observational art of looking up, and of courtesy towards someone who is taking the time to try to explain a context to them.
4. Work with locals. We cannot expect to ‘go native’ on a short trip, and terms like ‘ethnography’ can be used too freely (much to the annoyance of anthropologists I am sure). But, given limited time and resources, we can make links with local universities or groups, learn a little more about context, and move beyond only staying in the hotel bar and talking with taxi drivers.
5. Small groups. Thirty people on a bus is a tour group. By breaking students into small groups of four (or so) we hand responsibility over to them and encourage them to set up meetings, take charge of interviews, and think about issues of sensitivity. In a large group, people can hide and expect others to take responsibility.

We cannot overcome many of the structural aspects that dominate the relationship between the researched and the researcher. We cannot stop the curiosity of humans to travel and see the condition of others. But if we are going to organise fieldtrips, we can try to be more sensitive.

Details of the MA in Peace and Conflict Studies field trip can be found here: http://www.hcri.manchester.ac.uk/study-with-us/postgraduate-taught/fieldwork/