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Challenges of Academic Research in the Midst of War

With armed conflicts around the world rising and the global number of refugees at an all-time high, academics often find themselves in the midst of conflicts, trying to provide insights. Those situations bring about many professional challenges.

Researchers studying conflicts face dilemmas resembling those of photojournalists. “Imagine a photojournalist watching people being killed in a war zone. If she intervenes to prevent the killing, then there will be no record of the incidents, but she might save a life. If she sticks with her job, her photo might bring awareness and have a wider impact, thus it could save several lives,” said Suad Joseph, professor of anthropology and gender, sexuality, and women’s studies at the University of California, Davis, who founded the Association for Middle East Women’s Studies and gave a keynote address at a December conference on “The Contributions of Arab Women Towards a Lasting Peace.”

Research in conflict zones is rising in importance. The number of conflicts in the world has increased sharply since 2010, according to the U.S.-based Center for Systemic Peace. The battle deaths are increasingly among civilians, and the deaths are concentrated in the Middle East, according to statistics collected from other sources by the World Bank.

In her own work in the midst of conflict, Suad Joseph says she has chosen to offer a helping hand.

“There is no consensus among professionals on what’s right or wrong in these cases,” she said. “Some scholars say you change the social reality you study by your interference. I believe it’s a personal choice, but wherever it’s legitimate for me to help, I tend to step in.”

Aside from such hard ethical decisions, academic researchers working in conflict zones say they largely try to abide by the same rigorous scientific rules that guide other social-science research.

Sultan Barakat, director of the Centre for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies at the Doha Institute, said researchers need to be flexible and use a wide range of data-collection methods. “Some researchers have told of the advantages of giving locals lifts and chatting in the back of a Jeep on their way to the research site,” Barakat wrote in an article titled “Researching under Fire.”  While such a method might not agree with rigid research protocol, it is still a good way of gathering information, argued Barakat.

“It’s obviously much more difficult to get reliable information in conflict zones as you might find archives destroyed or people afraid to talk,” said Séverine Autesserre, an associate professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University, in an interview. “There is certainly a concern about data quality, but you can still get the data in other ways.”

Researchers participating in a discussion on “Research in Wars and Conflict Zones” at a recent conference in Doha agreed on the need  for a broad set of tools and research methodology. While doing research in Iraq, a researcher at the University of South Australia, Fatin Shabber, developed a story-telling technique to encourage Iraqi women to answer her questions, which she found more useful than just running through a list of questions.

Joseph, of the University of California, finds deep listening to be effective. “To encourage people to tell their stories, you have to listen not only to the words, but to underlying meanings,” she said. “People usually find it healing to tell their story to someone who listens carefully.”

While human-subject protocols generally govern the interaction between subjects and researchers employed by Western universities, the absence of such protocols at many Arab universities leaves the rules for interaction to the skills and experience of the researcher.

“Every single context is different and you can never be fully trained for every situation,” said Barakat. “The best you can do is to come up with a set of dilemmas, a set of questions you need to ask yourself, and balance the odds in order to get the best course of action.”

One of the rules for interacting with research subjects is to make sure they know they can stop providing information and exit the research at any time. In reality, the researcher will almost always have more power and resources than the subjects. This can make it difficult for subjects to feel they can stop cooperating with researchers.

Researchers can also risk raising false hopes when interacting with vulnerable subjects. Barakat advises his students against giving research subjects any expectation that they can help them. “Some people feel the need to give promises in order to facilitate the conversation. You have to be clear from the very beginning, and I think people understand that and can distinguish clearly between academic researchers and aid workers,” he said.

At the same time, researchers do, in a way, provide help, he said: “I see a lot of value in contacting communities as long as researchers are properly trained. It’s a very lonely feeling when you are isolated and stuck in your own little war. People feel forgotten and think that they don’t mean anything to anybody.”

Researchers often work through humanitarian agencies to gain access to people in high-conflict locations. That necessity raises a whole new set of challenges, and researchers’ experiences vary greatly in this regard.

The chairperson of the Social Work Department at Modern University for Business and Science, in Lebanon, Rania Mansour, found that partnerships with aid agencies provided a wider overview because such agencies have a presence on the ground all over the country. She, on the other hand, has limited funding and time.

However, working through a humanitarian agency often means research subjects wind up expecting to receive some kind of aid.

“I was studying the effect of psychological and social support on children refugees. In the Arab perspective this was not seen as a real service,” she said. “It was difficult to convince the parents to have their children participate in the support session without providing food or aid of some kind.”

Autesserre also said that working through aid agencies could bias the information you get. “People might tell you things they want you to pass on to the aid agency, or keep information from you that they don’t want the aid agency to know.”

Autesserre, who wrote a book called “Peaceland: Conflict Resolution and the Everyday Politics of International Intervention,” also found that aid agencies can try to control where researchers go and who they meet. For one thing, “because of their strict security policies they might have a different assessment of the risk situation than the researcher,” she says.

Researchers have similar fears about biasing their studies when they have to work through governments. Research subjects and refugees who are afraid of government actions may distort or withhold information, and informants who are hostile to governments can exaggerate the governments’ negative effects.

Along with worrying about bias, researchers in conflict zones have to worry about personal security. In contemporary warfare, many soldiers and militants tend not to acknowledge the neutrality of any party, including academics, journalists, and health care workers. Indeed, such people are often just eyed as lucrative kidnapping targets. “The circumstances and nature of conflict have changed dramatically,” Barakat said. “Even under the worst days of the war in Bosnia, the warring parties had a degree of reasonable respect and understanding of the value of research.”

Security concerns have also made obtaining research funding much more challenging, as fewer and fewer institutions who finance research are willing to take the risk, said Barakat.

Despite the variance in views on the challenges, difficulties and courses of action, researchers say studies in conflict zones are badly needed.

“I don’t want us to close our eyes to the problems of quality and risks, but we still have to continue to do research. We can make an effort to overcome the problems we face. It’s essential to understand why there is violence and how we can restore peace,” Autesserre said.


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