Tag Archives: fieldwork

In praise of awkwardness

25 Jul

Awkwardness …. Well it makes us feel a little awkward.

Recently, I had a very interesting conversation with Elizabeth Saleh from the American University of Beirut. She talked about some research she has been conducting among Syrian refugees children in Beirut and how awkwardness was a key part of the anthropological method. She described how she would visit various research sites to sit and observe as part of ethnography, and how this entailed a good deal of awkwardness at the beginning. People would wonder: ‘Who is this woman?’, ‘What does she want?’, ‘What is she actually doing here?’, ‘Does she work for the government?’ Essentially, she explained, you have to get beyond that initial period of awkwardness in order to make progress in research.

That got me thinking about the awkwardness that is involved in a lot of the fieldwork I have done, and how awkwardness is more or less a core part of the research process. A few examples of awkwardness:

The interview: You arrange to meet someone for a research interview, possibly in a café or at their office, and there is the initial awkwardness as each party scopes out the other. Basically, they are trying to work out the purpose of the interview and your intentions with the interview material. You are trying to work out if they will be easy to interview: engaging and talkative, or stilted and hesitant. In the vast majority of cases, interviewees are wonderfully generous with their time and insight, but there is always that initial awkwardness.

At passport control: The immigration officer asks you the purpose of your visit. In some cases, you have lied outright to get the visa because it would be crazy to say that you are conducting research. That would spell instant visa denial or bureaucratic delay. So you have to tell the immigration officer that you are visiting friends or there for a holiday. Since I am usually wearing a corduroy jacket and holding a book with a riveting title like ‘The heuristics and ontology of International Relations in the anthropocene” the immigration officer is rarely fooled that I am there to visit friends. They know I am lying, and I know that they know I am lying. It is awkward and usually I am saved by the fact that the immigration officer just does not care.

The walk: Often the best way to get to know a field research context is to have a walk around. It can be very revealing about standards of living, the main sources of employment and diversion, where and how people live etc. But in many contexts, the researcher stands out in terms of skin colour, dress and demeanour. It is obvious to any observer that you do not belong there. And with this observation comes awkwardness. You are simply walking around to see what you can see. You are not helping anyone or contributing to their lives. It is an awkward realisation that you are engaging in an intrusive activity.

Recognising the selfishness of our research: I would like to think that my research is vital for humanity. It is not. In my experience, virtually all policymakers and practitioners are extremely knowledgeable and rarely need insights from largely desk-based researchers who make occasional forays in ‘the field’. To the extent that my research is useful, it informs my teaching and provides material for my writing. That in turn might feed a number of academic debates I am involved in. Those debates, while fun and intellectually rewarding, tend to be among a limited number of scholars. Yet, we study contexts in which people have real needs – often basic needs of security and shelter. From this comes an awkwardness – a guilt – that we are voyeurs or conflict tourists armed with a visa to leave.

With a colleague I held a focus group in a post-authoritarian country in the past year. As a sign of thanks to the focus group participants, we brought along lunch. Although the country did not strike me as food insecure, every morsel of food was eaten. Not a crumb was left behind. As people talked during the focus group, it was clear that they led very precarious lives in which there was much poverty and hardship. It was a humbling moment. People saw this food (perhaps because it was brought to them and slightly removed from their usual diet) as being a great luxury. I left the focus group feeling very awkward – like some sort of crown prince. I would be in a nice hotel in a few hours and could choose whatever I wanted to eat – and would not think twice about leaving something on my plate.

My immediate reaction to awkwardness is that I want it to end. I usually fill awkward silences with platitudes and obvious questions and statements about the weather. But, in the case of research, perhaps we have to accept awkwardness and work through it. If there is any upside of this awkwardness it is that it encourages us to be reflexive and to think about issues of positionality and epistemology. It might help us get beyond the nonsense (indeed, as Patrick Chabal termed it ‘conceit’) that we can be truly empathetic with our research subjects. We cannot. For the most part, our privilege sets us apart from them so completely that we might as well be from another planet. Often our research subjects have not been to university and have little idea of the nature and purposes of academic research (let alone the arcane political economies that attend it).

So what is to be done? One thing that we can do is to embrace awkwardness and see it as a necessary part of the research process. It helps situate us, and reminds us that much field research is a very human process involving doubt and anxiety. Why do none of the textbooks on field research have a chapter on feeling awkward?


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).