The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Yes, it’s possible to do research in conflict zones. This is how.

An Afghan security official stands guard at the check post in Helmand, Afghanistan, on March 21. (Watan Yar/European Pressphoto Agency)

Studying active conflict zones in the 21st century is uniquely difficult. New forms of war and non-state armed actors blur the lines of the battlefield, and Westerners are increasingly targeted.

We have spent years researching the politics of warlords, rebels and foreign interventions in Afghanistan, Somalia and the Turkey-Syria borderland. These places have become increasingly perilous countries in which to work. But they remain of great concern for Western policymakers. And although innovative methods allow researchers to study certain elements of conflict from afar, fieldwork remains as important as ever. Without fine-grained, “on-the-ground” analysis, decision-makers may dangerously misunderstand the politics and players that shape the contours of war abroad.

So how can scholars conduct meaningful research in such challenging contexts?

Building a “tribe”

Students of political science have long been taught that, if they approach their work with responsibility and rigor, they will be able to understand and control their research subjects and produce “objective” facts. In a recent article, we argue that, for those who study political violence, this is no longer the case and probably never was. Conflict scholars often have limited power over the people and places they investigate.

To compensate, they build social networks that offer access, support and protection, what we call “tribes.” In our research, we have adopted our own brands of “tribal politics,” incrementally joining, exiting and returning to various, sometimes overlapping, networks. Nationality as well as ethnicity, gender and personality all shaped — and limited — our approaches to this “tribe-building.” But without a trusted set of interlocutors to make introductions, share hard-earned wisdom and offer hospitality and protection, we could not have navigated the minefields — intellectual and otherwise — of the war zones where we worked.

While traveling in northern Afghanistan, one of the authors dined at a former commander’s home. Her interview had unexpectedly parlayed into a gathering of former mujahideen fighters who regaled her with war stories late into the night. She gathered important data and contacts for her project that evening but could hardly be characterized as powerful or independent in this context. Instead, she was there as a guest whose reputation and safety were, in effect, at the mercy of her hosts.

Academics have access to some important resources, but their research subjects have access to resources of their own, including their superior understanding of all that is “local.” A scholar — not unlike an aid worker or a soldier — is vulnerable to manipulation by her local subjects and interlocutors. While conducting research in western Afghanistan, one of the authors heard his own presence referenced in a speech made by a strongman’s lieutenant. In this context, the strongman’s status as a subject was a source of prestige and evidence that, as a leader, he remained relevant to the international community.

Researchers also lack power over how they are perceived and, therefore, received. One author, conducting fieldwork in southern Turkey, was sometimes met with pronounced disappointment, even ire, over the U.S. failure to intervene decisively in Syria’s civil war. In a heated environment, the presumed association between a Western scholar and her government can pose a wide range of risks to her and those associated with her project.

What are the risks of “tribe-building”?

The relationships researchers build to compensate for these limits and vulnerabilities come with real risks. Researchers can grow enmeshed in the friendships and fights of their associates, sometimes with dire consequences. The Mogadishu hotel where one of us stayed was targeted by al-Shabab militants a year later. The Somali strongman and owner who had provided him protection was killed in the attack, as were a dozen hotel guests.

Fellow “tribesmen” — like interpreters, fixers, informants and friends — can also go on to assume powerful roles within the very political systems they were engaged to study. Their decisions about what information to share and with whom remain beyond the control of foreign scholars and may have unforeseen consequences.

Scholars too may commit acts of betrayal (real or perceived) against members of their tribe. Their published work, now available to anyone with an Internet connection, can offend, anger or implicate those who shared their time, efforts and insights along the way.

Researchers also run the opposite risk of admiring or even “celebritizing” their subjects. When meeting Afghan strongmen in their opulent palaces, our capacity to be dispassionate students of their politics was undoubtedly challenged by such flagrant displays of power.

Finally, perhaps the greatest risk that comes with tribal politics is a researcher’s mistaken belief that she belongs. The ease of access that comes with social media, while valuable for the tribe-building project, further enables this misperception. Foreign scholars can never be true insiders, and any delusion to the contrary carries with it serious intellectual and physical risks.

These realizations have given us little choice but to acknowledge that who we are, how we are seen, with whom we interact and how we respond matter and, ultimately, play a considerable role in the creation of our own ideas.

Why we need greater transparency

Most conflict scholars — and indeed most social scientists who conduct field research — could share similar stories. Whether they like it or not — they have become part of the social, political and economic equations that shape life in conflict zones. In many cases, they have little control over those equations. However, descriptions of scholarly findings often leave out these details, intentionally or unintentionally portraying the researcher as independent and in control. We believe that open dialogue about the dependencies, biases and vulnerabilities of field research will help us better produce knowledge about conflict in creative and conscientious ways.

All kinds of social scientists construct tribes on which they depend. Each tribe is singular and may be irreplicable, even with the most rigorous of research instruments and designs. But this does not necessarily preclude greater transparency. On the contrary, we hope it invites more conversation, analogical thinking and reflection, especially at a time when the very value of expertise has come into question.

In an era of “post-truth” politics and “alternative facts,” field researchers have the opportunity to counter fact-defying populism with robust evidence and thoughtful argumentation. As students of political violence, we have adapted a range of strategies and tactics to navigate the turbulence of the insecure places we study. These approaches come with risks as well as opportunities for innovation and collaboration. Only if we are open about the ways in which we generate knowledge can we expect this kind of scholarship to be produced, trusted and, ultimately, utilized to improved policy ends.

Romain Malejacq is an assistant professor at the Centre for International Conflict Analysis & Management (CICAM), Radboud University Nijmegen, Institute for Management Research. Follow him @afghanopoly

Dipali Mukhopadhyay is an assistant professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and a member of the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies.