Challenges of (academic) fieldwork in post-conflict societies

Rok Zupančič

1 July 2017


Conducting fieldwork in post-conflict societies has certain characteristics and unwritten rules: it will often touch upon sensitive issues and will thus automatically be challenging. This is amplified when one conducts academic research, which is ambitious by definition, as it strives for theory-building. The thoughts that follow in this article are a short overview of deliberations I had during my last visit to the north of Kosovo in March 2017.

Most researchers who have done some research in post-conflict societies struggle with the question of how to distinguish the correct information from that which is false in an environment that is often unwelcoming to foreigners. The field of peacebuilding—in which national and international actors do not always work hand-in-hand and at times even pursue different agendas—is a good case in point.

Gaining trust from the local population and building a reputation for trustworthiness in a post-conflict society is likely to be one of the most challenging tasks for a non-local researcher. Let us assume that the researcher relies on interviews as the main method of fieldwork (a realistic prospect, given that most peacebuilding research projects rely on this method). How does this look in practice? The researcher usually makes a few interview arrangements in advance. As these arrangements in post-conflict societies are often prone to change, the researcher, when arriving “in the field”, knows that quite a few interviews might not be completed for one reason or another.

I can vouch for “the fluidity” of arrangements in the Balkans; I am well-acquainted with the phrase, “Zovi, kad dodješ, i dogovoričemo se” (across the various languages heard in the Balkans, this roughly translates to: “Call once you arrive, and we will set the time”). After the initial fuzziness, the researcher then slowly starts getting a grip and usually manages to conduct several interviews during a rather short stay (measured, at best, in the number of weeks, but sometimes even in the number of days!). Then, all too soon the field trip is coming to an end, and the researcher starts packing their things, whilst in the meantime still trying to get a few more potential interviewees’ telephone numbers. These will be those who did not have time to meet the researcher or were simply not in the country when the researcher was there.

Upon arriving home, the researcher embarks on another challenging journey, called the data analysis stage. By definition, this means complementing the existing knowledge (theory) with the fresh data “from the ground”, so as to build on that theory. Conducting fieldwork and subsequent analysis, however, is probably the less problematic part of research taking place in post-conflict societies, even though it can be quite nerve- and time-demanding. Slightly more problematic, for example, is the unspoken imperative to also factor in some time for a visit to the spots that symbolically illustrate the narrative of the conflict; this is not a problem in and of itself, but one’s ego tends to encourage photographing these places, and uploading those photos to social media.

The most worrying element of research in post-conflict environments lies in the fact that people in such societies are unsurprisingly rather hesitant when it comes to the sharing of sensitive information with others. This is particularly true of post-conflict societies, where trauma and suspiciousness are often the two omnipresent features of an individual’s daily lived experience. Thus, how can a researcher—even though they might be an academic who supposedly sticks to the highest ethical standards—believe that their interviewees are actually willing to reveal the most crucial information, or simply, that they are speaking the truth?

Although I continually question my own conclusions on this matter, on balance I believe that the only way forward is for researchers not to jump from one (post-conflict) society to another, from one conflict to another. Some sort of continuity is needed (hard though it is to judge how long this should be), so that the interlocutors in a post-conflict society realise that the researcher does not work “for someone”: (many researchers, including myself, have been faced with the accusation of being a spy). Once this perception is overcome, it must be emphasised that the researcher is genuinely interested in the post-conflict zone. Only then can the researcher overcome what Nissim Cohen and Tamar Arieli (2011: 423) describe as “common attitudes of distrust and suspicion” within a local community, which hamper the possibility of conducting high-quality research in post-conflict environments.

Hence, researchers often rely on a method known as ‘snowballing’ sampling for selecting potential interviewees (in other words, asking their interviewees for recommendations as to who to speak with next). Although this sampling technique is usually used for studying “the hidden populations” that are difficult to access, I have previously decided to rely on this method because the locals in northern Kosovo have difficulties discussing their issues openly, especially with a foreigner. Building on my previous work in northern Kosovo, my local contacts, and also a certain degree of credibility and trust I have built up in this particular environment, I tried to address the research problem “through” the locals. These locals served as intermediaries who talked privately to their own contacts and forwarded my research ideas to potential interviewees on my behalf. Where this resulted in someone else’s agreement to meet me in person to discuss the issues in question, the meeting would be organised in a location suggested by the interviewee. As I conducted all of the interviews by myself, I wanted to assure that each interviewee felt secure. Therefore, the meetings were organised in various places in northern Kosovo, including private houses and apartments, offices (usually after the interviewee’s regular working hours, when the office was empty) and also, of course, cafés (the discrete kind).

My approach—and many others like it—may rightly be criticised for not conforming fully to the scientific principles of systematicity, reproducibility, reliability, and thus even validity. However, in the face of such critiques I concur with Cohen and Arieli (2011: 423), who argue that this is the choice between the research taking place under constrained conditions and the research not being conducted at all. Given the fact that I have spent a reasonable share of my research career traveling to Kosovo, it does not come as a surprise that I take Cohen and Arieli’s point in support of my own research agenda. But as I have alluded above, I continue to wonder what the actual use of putting together the pieces of information collected through this method is. And I think I am aiming for this: not the giant leap, but maybe at least a small step ahead, building upon the forgoing analyses of post-conflict societies, and challenging those written by the scholars who rely on “the armchair approach” in studying post-conflict societies. All taken into account, I prefer to be there than to look on from afar.


References

Cohen, N. and T. Arieli (2011), ‘Field research in conflict environments: Methodological challenges and snowball sampling’, Journal of Peace Research, 48(4), 423–435.


Photo credit

Title photo: UN Photo/Flaka Kuqi


Funding

This article draws on findings from the KOSNORTH and IECEU projects. KOSNORTH has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 655896. IECEU has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 653371.


About the Author

Rok Zupančič

Rok Zupančič is a Marie Curie Fellow at the Centre of Southeast Europe, University of Graz, and Assistant Professor at the University of Ljubljana, Faculty of Social Sciences, Defence Research Centre.


 

2 thoughts on “Challenges of (academic) fieldwork in post-conflict societies

  1. You are on the right track; but of prime importance–as you know–is the establishment of trust. It is highly improbable that –in conflict contexts–trust could be established within a brief span of time as you may have for your few weeks or days of research. If one is restricted in the length of time to spend in the area, I am afraid that the trust that one assumes to have gained is often ‘false trust’, and this would emerge perhaps years later when one’s research is being picked apart. You do rightly suggest the quandary of deciding to get a foot in the door with seminal research or not doing any: at times, not doing any research within a very restricted time horizon may be better than getting ‘false positives’. Now I should add that there is a difference between trying to gain trust for empirical research and trying to gain trust quickly within a volatile context in which one may need to work–but not do ‘typical’ research.

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    1. Thanks for your comment; you are absolutely right, trust is a very important thing, though it is quite hard to establish it. This does not apply to post-conflict societies only, but in general. However, once you do establish a certain degree of trust, your access to relevant information becomes bigger (although you never know – and this again does not apply to apost-conflict societies only – what the unknown unknowns are).

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