Josef Korbel School of International Studies - Ethics of Engagement

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Thomas Schelling testifies before Congress in October, 1969

Date Submitted: 11/22/2019

Question summary:

How to be relevant when researching both sides of a conflict

Full question:

Many of us who research armed conflict try to engage with both sides during our research (for example, both the government and separatists). This is challenging enough for conducting research when gaining trust and access with one side may come at the cost of losing trust/access with the other side, but raises new problems when considering the policy relevant implications (especially if the researcher hopes to return to their field sites to do further research in the future). How can the implications of one's research be fairly discussed and disseminated in a way that allows continued engagement with multiple actors who are still in conflict with each other? If a particular implication or recommendation is likely to be seen as favouring one side over the other, what is the appropriate trade-off between being faithful to the conclusions of one's research and the risk of severing links with respondents and being accused of becoming a participant in a conflict? I don't believe engagement and relevance should be limited to our engagement with recognised governments (and in my own research in de facto states, who counts as legitimate and recognised is something of a grey area), and nor should the effort to make our findings relevant require us to burn bridges with the communities we worked with in the course of our research, even if we are critical (and perhaps want to be publicly critical) of their political elites. How can these competing demands be weighed and balanced? Many thanks.

Response 1

These are tough and important questions, and, as most (or even all) of the questions I suspect will be sent to this forum, there are no easy answers. There are a lot of specifics that matter in navigating these situations and I understand how it might be hard to get specific enough on this forum to get a meaningful answer while also being sufficiently high level not to identify yourself and/or your participants (also a challenge when presenting your findings). Some such considerations include:- how specifically you think your publications and actions affect your ability to conduct research in theses sites in the future (ranging from obtaining visas or government research permits to access and welcome by community members) ; questions of timing of when your findings need to be disseminated to best make an impact (practical, scholarly); what exactly you find vis-a-vis different conflict actors, etc. Best strategies forward likely depend on these and other specifics. Some of the things that I’ve done at different times when faced with similar challenges include: recommending embargoing a dissertation; timing publications after going back to research sites one more/’last’ time; presenting findings in progress to multiple constituencies and ensuring that they each knew I was giving the same presentation in other locations/communities; making findings available in multiple relevant languages for different constituencies; presenting more ‘direct findings’ and less ‘analysis/interpretation’ (“don’t shoot the messenger”), etc. I wish there were an answer that allowed you and other researchers in similar situations everything you want here, and there are certainly ways to navigate getting more of what you’re hoping for (less bridge burning, etc.), but I also think there is often going to be some bridge burning, despite your best intentions, given your work in such politically charged settings, even if you do your very best to be inclusive, impartial, faithful to your findings, etc. As long as you’re confident in your methods and findings, there is a responsibility — including principally to those who gave of their time to your research in the hopes of being heard — to get your research out in the world at a point that makes sense to do so.

Response 2

This is a difficult question to answer in the abstract; much hinges on the nature of the conflict and the policies that you want to influence. Some issue areas, such as conflict resolution or peace-building measures, may benefit both sides. Others, however, will naturally favor one side of the conflict over another, particularly if recommendations concern measures for achieving victory. One possible solution would be to extend multiple policy recommendations simultaneously, some of which favor the government while others favor non-government forces. A second solution is to stick to advice that favors neither party; recommendations for limiting civilian casualties might be welcomed (or be neutral enough) by both sides. You may also choose to offer your advice to both parties privately. Such solutions may be only partial and temporary, however. In the end, the author may be forced to choose between continuing his/her research while staying silent on policy matters, or speaking out and risking alienating one or both sides. In my view, if offering policy advice risks endangering one’s subjects and/or the cessation of field research entirely, then the harm of policy engagement (at least publicly) outweighs the benefits. If it were me, and I wanted to continue to access both sides, I would emphasize my neutrality/impartiality to both parties. As part of this, I would restrict my public discussions to issues that either dealt with both parties equally or that addressed third-party issues (like civilians caught between the two sides). For me, the research comes first, and then the policy engagement. This may only be a temporary solution, however; it may be increasingly difficult to maintain one’s impartiality. You may have to decide which side to support and which to openly criticize. I would urge you to consider the negative consequences of speaking out for your contacts and subjects in your field setting. Is there a way that they could be harmed by speaking to you? Are all necessary safeguards in place to protect the anonymity of both your individual subjects and their wider communities? Policy engagement here may not simply mean the loss of access for you to field sites but also increasing the risk to your sources, their families, and communities.


Response 3

Important question. One way my research teams approach this is to be clear and transparent to everyone we speak with about what we are doing and why. Our profiles that we present to the people we talk with during our research match everything that is online about us (you will be Googled!) We interview all parties to the conflict and civilians who are affected by the conflict, this is essential to presenting a more comprehensive view and in establishing your credibility with all sides. We work with local teams and local researchers who help us gain access to our research subjects, who open opportunities for the research and who assist us in making sense of what we learn. We present findings back in the form of community based workshops and meetings to discuss what we think we have learned and to hear back from our subjects and those we hope will find our research useful. Very importantly when dealing with persons who have or are committing various forms of violence during a conflict, we approach everyone with respect and treat them with dignity. Our body language, our traveling to meet them, our deep listening and questions are, in my opinion, the key to being taken as a researcher whose agenda is to learn and who is not pursuing an agenda to reform or lecture or denounce or `CVE’ them. Having conducted literally hundreds of interviews with people who have carried out crimes during war, one becomes aware that these people are just that, complex people. Too often government or CVE agendas posit people as simplistic `terrorists’ or other terms that dull our curiosity and thinking about “who are these people and how did they get here? ” It is the researchers’ responsibility to engage in transparent and ethical research at all times, and this absolutely includes do no harm to your research subjects, which means you don’t pass on (or even collect in some cases) information that could be used to harm them. That is something we all need to think hard about in this era of PCVE and CVE. Some of the team members, including myself, are US citizens, which limits our ability to directly share any information with members of organizations on the US Terror List. When members of such organizations that we are interviewing ask us questions to illicit information from us about our areas of specialization, we clearly explain to them that we cannot share that information because of the laws in our country and the very real and negative impacts it could have on us. In every case I have done this the persons have been understanding, have refrained from asking me more questions in terms of my knowledge, and have continued with our interview. We also engage at high levels with government and inter-governmental officials and bodies to share information, making it clear we are available for private briefings etc. if they want more information beyond what we make publicly available. We also hold workshops at the beginning of the research, again to share initial findings and to again present final findings with local and central government and civil society members to share our information widely. We are thus recognized as being a balanced research group that is responsive to and respectful of the communities we work in. Because we have worked for many years in the countries we are conducting research in, we have built local, national and international networks to help us navigate the research and the uptake.