A considerable part of the academic knowledge about violent conflict and violent actors that comes from so-called area studies is based on fieldwork – that is to say, often doctoral students or junior scholars are on the ground studying the dynamics of peace and conflict constellations. These types of data collection and knowledge construction are not limited to the field of anthropology: they have also become a common tool for people in international relations or sociology. While there are many introductions regarding “how to do” fieldwork and the methods to use, this anthology highlights the experiences and practices of fieldwork in challenging environments.
The editors are experienced scholars in this field of research. Berit Bliesemann de Guevara is a professor at the Department of International Politics and the founding director of the Centre for the International Politics of Knowledge at Aberystwyth University in the United Kingdom. Her research focuses on international peace-building and state-building interventions and on the role of knowledge in/about peace, conflict, and intervention. She has also co-organized and co-curated exhibitions of political textiles and furthermore edits the blog “Stitched Voices”. De Guevara is currently the principal investigator of a project exploring the subjectivities of former guerrilla fighters in Colombia and the co-investigator of the “Raising Silent Voices” project on local conflict knowledge in two states of Myanmar. Morten Bøås is a research professor at the Oslo-based Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI). His research focuses on conflict, politics, and state-building in Africa and the Middle East, including issues such as land rights and citizenship conflicts, youths, ex-combatants, and the new landscape of insurgencies and geopolitics. His most recently published book is Africa’s Insurgents: Navigating an Evolving Landscape.1 Currently, Bøås is conducting a research project on “Strengthening Fragile States through Taxation” (FRAGTAX).
Following the introduction by the editors, the volume comes in four parts. In part 1, “Control and Confusion”, composed of four chapters, questions of ethics and access are discussed relating to research on international and local judges and prosecutors working within the War Crime Chamber of the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina; referring to an experience of “decentering the interviewer” while doing interviews at the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) in Stuttgart, Germany; speaking to veterans of the Soviet-Afghan war in Tajikistan; and reflecting on the reliance on “local contacts, researchers and fixers” while doing fieldwork as a person from the Global North in conflict zones of the Global South. In part 2, “Security and Risk”, divided into five chapters, perspectives are introduced on politics of safeguarding the researcher in violent and illiberal contexts; the politics and ethics of fieldwork in post-conflict Tajikistan; the specific challenges coming with research in active conflict zones; an unsettling experience of asking for security experts’ (Eurocentric and racist) risk assessments of ongoing conflict situations; and the experience of “being watched and being handled” by security services while doing research.
In part 3, “Distance and Closeness”, consisting of four chapters, reflections are offered on topics such as identity in relation to fieldwork and interviews in an insecure field (relating to Sana’a, Yemen); the role of researchers in post-war contexts (with a focus on Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina); ethical and practical challenges of embedded research in areas of ongoing violent conflict (Darfur, Sudan); and how interpretive fieldwork with local associates still smuggles in hierarchized research relationships between North and South (Myanmar). Finally, part 4,“Sex and Sensitivity”, offers another four chapters, which are centered around questions of how to engage with vulnerable sources (in this case, sex workers and “sugar babies” in Goma in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC]); the ethical implications of studying exemplary, not pathological, wartime sexual conduct (in multiple geographical settings); experiences of researching sexual abuse and gender-based violence in the peacekeeping missions of the United Nations (UN); and researching sexual exploitation, rape, and abuse through narratives (DRC refugees in Uganda). In their conclusion, “Ten Things to Consider Before, During and After Fieldwork in a Violent or Closed Context” (pp. 271–282), the editors draw one comparative lesson leant from all these examples: there is neither a recipe for “good” or “successful” fieldwork “nor [a recipe] that one can prepare for all eventualities of what might happen when conducting intervention-related fieldwork in violent or illiberal contexts” (p. 271).
I consider this anthology to be extremely valuable, especially because the experiences and reflections it contains will be of great value to young researchers working in situations similar to those mentioned above. As the supervisor of a number of graduate students working in “violent and closed contexts”, this anthology offers crucial insights into issues of ethics or risk in one way or another. This (important) type of research not only can pose a risk to the researcher, but, in many ways, also has the potential for negative consequences for the informants, interviewees, and individuals used as sources – who then remain on site after the end of the field research. In this regard, de Guevara and Bøås have brought together important perspectives on a variety of contexts that illustrate the pitfalls of interview-based fieldwork in predominantly violent or post-violent contexts. This anthology helps early career scholars adjust to potential situations and their consequences, and better plan field research in advance from ethical and practical perspectives. Nevertheless, they will not be spared the daily trade-offs that arise in the field.
1 Morten Bøås / Kevin Dunn (eds.), Africa’s Insurgents. Navigating an Evolving Landscape, Boulder, CO, 2017.