Safer and Fairer: The Value of Cooperative Approaches to Fieldwork

A longer version was originally published on The CESS Blog

Recent commentaries on reflexivity and the role of emotions in fieldwork has made it abundantly clear that on-the-ground research can be very challenging and casts up a number of dilemmas for scholars to navigate. As I argued in an article co-authored with Nurbek Bekmurzaev and Joshua Meyer, one way of dealing with these problems is to approach fieldwork in a cooperative manner. 

Preconditions for Cooperative Research

When thinking about or arranging a cooperative research project, it is crucial to realistically assess the context. Take Kyrgyzstan, which has arguably been the country most open and accessible to do research in. On the one hand, the legal framework laid out in the Law on Science and the Foundations of the State Scientifico-technical Policy states that researchers have “free expression of their scientific views” and the protection of the “freedom of their work.” 

In reality, the security organs and other state actors seem to consider independent research both a nuisance and a potentially destabilizing force in domestic politics. As a result, Kyrgyzstan actively hinders the work of journalists and researchers. Examples are abundant, including the case of U.S. journalist Umar Farooq, who was detained by the local police in the southern city of Osh on allegations that he was carrying “extremist material,” including DVD disks with clips of extremist recruitment videos. Similarly, and more blatantly, the international NGO Freedom House and its local partner organizations were subjected to investigation by security organs after they conducted research on questions of inter-ethnic relations, among other issues.

Overall, there does not appear to be any clearly defined procedures for obtaining research visas or permission from state agencies and ministries, which have often – retrospectively – claimed authority to regulate research and knowledge production. In this unregulated context, the obvious safety risks associated with research can best be navigated with the help of trustworthy interlocutors and collaborators, who can provide researchers – inexperienced individuals, but also for researchers familiar with a country – advice and help in conducting their fieldwork. Such collaboration can occur in the form of a long-term cooperative project that aims at dialogic knowledge production by accommodating the opinions and feedback of partners on the ground throughout the research process

The Advantage and Path Dependency of Networks 

Besides assessing the risks and viability of doing research in a given context, a key purpose for networks is to provide access to a group or community that the researcher seeks to do research on. This is illustrated in Nurbek’s research on the life of the – now deceased – Imam Rafiq Qori from the town of Kara-Suu in southern Kyrgyzstan. After initially being unsuccessful with his requests for interviews with the imam’s religious circle, the researcher presented his project to the protagonist’s eldest son Rashodkhan. The latter approved of what appeared to be a promising attempt to capture the life story of his father and instructed his small community that Nurbek was a trustworthy conversation partner. This way, Nurbek was granted “access to the network as  everyone considered it safe to talk to [him] about Rafiq Qori.”

Secondly, Joshua’s experience from his linguistic research on Kyrgyz dialects shows that networking and trust-building can be indispensable even for research that does not concern issues of religion, security, peace or conflict. Intent to build a linguistic corpus of Kyrgyz language in the southwestern town of Batken, he and his research assistant were continuously failing to persuade people to participate. Local people’s concerns ranged from the fact that they did not know the foreign researcher and his non-local assistant, to entirely unexpected questions like, “But what if your government decides to confiscate your recordings and use them for their own purposes?” Access was secured only thanks to a Batken-based friend introducing the researcher to his family during a meal. After making acquaintances, the relatives agreed to have recordings made and helped recruit further friends and neighbors for the recording of a comprehensive data set of Batken dialect. 

Both of these examples show how important networking contacts act as a precondition for access, and as a way for both researcher and research participants to navigate the risks of fieldwork. That said, some networks are mutually exclusive, as connections to one network may open some doors, but may also close others. Madeleine Reeves’ analysis of research on border communities in the Ferghana valley has vividly exemplified this aspect, indicating that good access to Kyrgyz communities through a mostly Kyrgyz research team implied more limited interaction with Tajik and Uzbek communities, and even fed into a more one-sided analytical narrative. 

Framing and Communication

Finally, the way the scope, objects and outputs of research are framed and communicated is key to conveying the benefits, risks and expectations associated with participation in it. By framing projects in more general and open terms and avoiding other ones that could be risky and raise security services’ attention, for instance, a researcher can soothe concerns and win over participants and cooperation partners. 

In my own postgraduate research project, focusing on the adaptation and resistance to globally dominant governance and statebuilding norms was helpful in establishing cooperation with a local NGO and avoiding unpleasant encounters with the state security services. Yet more strategically, in his research on the prevention of violent conflict in the southern Kyrgyzstani town of Özgön amidst widespread ethnic clashes in June 2010, Nurbek framed his inquiry around the “victory of the Özgön people in favour of order, stability, and inter-ethnic unity and friendship.” Addressed as “community leaders and ‘saviours’ of their hometown,” his respondents were much more enthused to participate and tell their story than they would have been otherwise. 

On the other hand, such framings also involve biases that need to be managed by researchers. They can indeed risk the glorification and the reproduction of a “harmony ideology” that makes people see only the good things, to the point of denying the persistence of conflicts and tensions. A particular framing can produce silences and blind spots with regard to the conflicts, human rights violations and extortion that people may be suffering in a given context, which can remain unseen and unheard of by the researcher. To avoid such a “Potemkin village effect,” maintaining rapport and keeping participants informed about the further course and outputs of one’s research presents a valuable alternative to the usual practice of severing ties once a researcher leaves “the field.” This can be practically realized by sharing interim field reports and draft publications to get preliminary feedback, by publishing results in shorter, more accessible formats and possibly, entering into a more systematic dialogue about the possibilities and limitations of cooperation between academics and civil society or wider community actors. Where possible and desired, researcher-interlocutor dialogue can also lead to the joint production of outputs. The rare occurrence of such publications points to the need to reorganize academic inquiry in less stratified and hierarchical ways.    

Philipp Lottholz is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Collaborative Research Centre/Transregio 138 “Dynamics of Security” & Institute for Sociology, Justus-Liebig-University Giessen, Germany.