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Researching Violent Societies: Methodological and Ethical Challenges

Gillian Robinson, Albrecht Schnabel and Marie Smyth

(This article appears in Work in Progress, United Nations University, Tokoyo Vol 15, No.3, Summer 1999. pp 24-27.)

Research in Divided Societies: A Poorly Documented Challenge

Despite the high level of research activity in conflict areas around the world, there has been little attention paid to the actual processes of conducting research in violently divided societies. Within a substantial literature on research methods, there is little that directly addresses the ethical and methodological challenges of researching in societies experiencing ethnic conflict and other violent upheavals. Often, researchers working in such circumstances have struggled to connect with the mainstream research community, yet are left to grapple in isolation with the special demands made on them in terms of research design, ethics and analysis.

It is against this background that INCORE's International Workshop on Researching Violent Societies brought together over thirty participants, including academics, journalists and field workers from countries as diverse as Australia, Bosnia, Cambodia, Great Britain, Israel, Japan, Kenya, Kyrgysztan, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, Palestine, Rwanda, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Spain and Switzerland. The aim of the workshop was to gain a better understanding of an issue that should be of concern to those involved in peace and conflict related research: the methodological and ethical challenges involved in conducting research in societies divided by conflict and violence.

The documentation of approaches, insights and dilemmas shared by researchers at the workshop will be invaluable in supporting existing and new researchers in their work in violent and divided societies. It is also anticipated that such collaboration will provide relevant and useful training materials for those who work for aid and relief agencies, international organisations or NGOs. This essay reflects on some of the main issues raised during the course of the workshop -- a first step taken by this group towards more effective, systematic and hopefully more impact-oriented research in divided societies.

The Role and Function of Research in Divided Societies

Research in and on divided societies differs greatly between the Northern and the Southern hemispheres: the ongoing conflict in Northern Ireland has generated several hundred simultaneous studies at any given time which have yielded more than 5,000 publications at this point. This has in part also been driven by the financial resources that are available for studies in this context. Despite the fact that the level of violence has been declining steadily in Northern Ireland, the number of studies continues to rise. On the other hand, research on divided societies in developing countries is poorly funded and rarely encouraged. Governments' interest focuses on potential and actual conflicts that have a direct impact on their countries' security. Whilst these conflicts are important to be understood it is also important from a humanitarian and world citizenship concern that other conflicts are also studied.

Much work has been done, for instance, on Bosnia, while very little research has been done on Somalia (before the international community decided to intervene) or on Rwanda (where genocide took place while the outside world looked on). Moreover many governments in divided societies in Africa, for instance, used to oppose research on division and conflict. Their policies (and this is, of course, little different from governments in the North), have been mostly re-active, rather than pro-active. In the context of extremely limited resources, there has been little interest in funding research on the roots of conflicts prior to their eruption. Of course, this is a no-win situation. Societal divisions must be understood before they result in armed conflict, if the latter are to be prevented. Furthermore research on Africa is done mostly by non-Africans, and has no local relevance or application with a resultant lack of effort to translate into policy. As a result of conditions of aid and humanitarian assistance programmes, governments have been forced to support educational institutions and civil society. There are now more opportunities in local institutions and universities to research intergroup conflict. Most of these, however, are still in South Africa, with very slow improvement of the situation in other parts of the continent. Finally, European and North American scholarship in this field has predominated, leading to a need to place more emphasis on local approaches and solutions to conflict and dispute management.

The second major point of focus centred on the question: Does researching divided societies have an impact on the actual situation on the ground? On the other hand, is much of the research done only to satisfy researchers' thirst for knowledge, need to enhance their publication record and other academically-driven needs, rather than the need to have an impact on the "objects" of our work? In general, researchers tend to overestimate their impact, while outsiders underestimate it. In order to rectify this imbalance, researchers need to make sure that their work "informs" and thus fosters others' "understanding," and that it serves to "lobby" and "influence" those who may have the power to improve intergroup relations, adjust external and local policies, and alleviate evolving and actual conflict. In comparison with other cases across time and space, research has to be translated into general lessons that inform international organisations, policymakers and the public (outside and inside divided societies) who may be in a position to influence the situation of respondent communities. This also means that the researcher needs to speak (and disseminate!) in numerous "languages": as a specialist, as a generalist, as an academic, and as a journalist.

Ideally, researchers from divided communities should also serve an educational function for their own people examining and questioning what divides, and what integrates, society. More often than not, societies do not fully understand their own social dynamics. A balanced mixture of external and internal research on "the state" of a society's social fabric may assist in preventing the escalation of often dormant and poorly understood differences.

Researcher Identities and Position: Insider, Outsider, or Participant

It is clearly a challenge to research the roots of conflict in a society that is already marked by substantial inter-group tension. There are numerous advantages, disadvantages, dangers and opportunities of being an "insider" or an "outsider" researcher in researching "your" conflict or "someone else's" conflict -- or in researching one's own or the other side of a conflict. To what degree can an inside researcher study his/her own conflict without taking sides, without compromising his/her professional ethics, or without being perceived as biased, despite one's best intentions and precautions? What are the dangers that an insider researcher exposes herself/himself to when working in a violent environment? To what degree could and should these dangers limit one's research activities and dissemination efforts? On the other hand, an insider gains access to information that often remains off limits for an outside researcher. Moreover, while inside researchers may overly emphasise the uniqueness of their own case, outside researchers often focus on comparative perspectives.

In the discussions around these questions it was agreed that "neutrality" in this kind of research is not possible. At best a researcher must identify his/her position and then proceed to conduct a study as objectively as possible. Passion for the plight of the people or the cause of their struggle are all issues that influence the researcher's judgement and influence the type of information gathered. Researchers are scientists. They are in pursuit of knowledge. However, they are also humans -- it is often an idealist drive to change and improve, which has driven them into the battlefields of intergroup conflicts. At times it may be unethical to remain a researcher and not cross the line and become an activist.

It is therefore important to emphasise accountability in the research process. This can be achieved by democratising the process -- by empowering those who are the "objects" of our work (people in divided societies) and the "consumers" (target audience). This effectively turns them into "subjects" in the research process.

The researcher is accountable to a considerable number of parties, and often for different reasons -- to the academic community, government agencies, private foundations, NGO and humanitarian communities, respondent populations, or various political causes. All these shape the research agenda, design and, possibly, the research results. The academic community (or one's academic employer) offers and withholds approval of the research plan, approves or disapproves of one's work, promotes or discontinues "unproductive" or "productive" researchers. The legitimacy, quality and scientific value of one's work is assessed in peer reviews before their utility is deemed worthy for publication in journals or books.

Governments and private foundations often provide the financial resource for research -- or deny the same. Research needs to be valuable for adaptation in policy processes -- however, this often only happens if there is an ideological congruence with the funders' own principles. Respondent populations can inform the direction and methodology of the research. They can assist in negotiating ethical dilemmas and guide the researcher's agenda. The researcher's political and ideological causes influence and shape the research agenda and process, and they shape the collection and interpretation of information, and the selection of respondents. All these forces and actors need to be considered as major factors in a researcher's work. Democratisation of the management and process of research is a means of achieving greater accountability. However, in actualising such accountability it is important that the researcher retain autonomy in the interests of scientific method and analysis. Indeed, there can be a tension between the added legitimacy created through accountability, and having one's work steered according to political interests.

Action Research and Dissemination: Making a Difference

Action research goes beyond traditional research -- through education and training, researchers work with their respondents in translating information and knowledge almost immediately into new thinking and understanding. In that function the researcher directly contributes to conflict resolution while conducting research. He/she not only extracts information, but is involved in changing the process, in "intervening" in the conflict situation. However, the roles of researcher, educator and activist need to be clearly identified to maintain one's professional integrity -- especially in the eyes of the respondent population. Dissemination is crucial in determining the impact of the research. Research results must be targeted at the right person, actor or organisation -- and be written in the right language and style. Few policymakers will read lengthy and complex scholarly accounts -- they simply will not have or make the time to do so. Regrettable as this may be it must influence research outputs and dissemination practices. Policy-oriented research will succeed in informing the policymaking process, with tight, crisp accounts of one's research, a summary of the findings and a set of recommendations. Translating findings into solid recommendations requires the researcher to be willing and prepared to take a stand and to advise on application in policy and practice.

Every target audience will require a different research report: the scholarly community is interested in how newly gained insights contribute to existing knowledge, and how conceptual debates can be advanced as the result of one's work. Thus, scholarly articles and presentations need to be prepared in that context. Funding agencies require brief statements of how one's work has satisfied the goals of the initial project proposal and funding request. Have the goals been reached, will there be an evaluation of the project's impact? Respondent populations can use results that are easily translated into their immediate and long-term concerns.

A paradigmatic difficulty arises with the use of phenomenological approaches. There are limitations involved in "the description of phenomena" approach to research, which often fails to contextualise the phenomena. Contextualisation is crucial in violently divided societies. Related to this is the transferability of concepts between languages and cultures that can pose difficult in comparative or international work. Again, it is important that dissemination is tailored to the target audience. At the micro-level the researcher has to be sure that conceptual frameworks are translated properly from one group to another -- otherwise research can run the risk of confusing or misinterpreting, instead of illuminating, the intergroup dynamics that are at the roots of conflict and violence. Thus, the action researcher faces three crucial moments during his/her work: framing the research agenda, conducting the research, and disseminating the results. In the context of violent and divided societies, these are absolutely crucial and very difficult tasks.

What's In It for Us? Ethics and the Research "Object"

The discussion on ethics was discussed from the perspective of the conflicts in former Yugoslavia that have attracted a range of humanitarian aid programmes and research projects. These programmes and projects have concentrated on those who have survived ethnic cleansing -- dislocation, displacement, death, maiming, rape, torture, loss of family and identity. Much of the research has been done without any effort to assess the data in the Yugoslav context, or to assure that these projects are used to improve the situation for those who have gone through the traumatic experience of intergroup war. Using these people as objects without treating them as subjects is ethically questionable. This becomes particularly important when respondents may deny the horrors that have happened to them and thus forgo an opportunity that may help them to address the experience, deal with it and, eventually, learn how to live a relatively normal life. Long-term commitment is needed to address these problems, beyond short interviewing and research trips. As in the general case, research in violent societies has to have a practical value to those participating. That much the researcher owes to his/her objects.

The researcher who does not focus on the victims of conflict -- the more usual scenario -- but on the perpetrators of violence and cruelty faces particular difficulties. Researching guerrilla movements, for instance, is a great challenge. If the researcher wants to secure and maintain the trust and confidence of his/her respondents, the key to information access, he/she has to treat their activities with utmost confidentiality -- a difficult task if that will entail witnessing acts of violence and destruction. Studying the perpetrator may mean observing the perpetration. This is itself an ethical challenge, yet is such research the only way to gather knowledge about perpetrators? If so, will the results contribute to the ability to allow one to out-manoeuvre, militarily defeat or negotiate with such groups -- thus "justifying" the ethical cost of studying perpetrators?

Comparative and Policy-Relevant Research

Finally, the workshop participants suggested that research should be result-oriented. Whilst research for knowledge's sake is necessary, knowledge eventually should contribute to action. Improved knowledge about violent societies needs to result in improved responses to the division and violence that causes societies to drift apart and go to war within and against each other. Mediation and other forms of intervention should be informed by sound information on divided societies and by specific knowledge about each situation's specific nature. Conflict is caused and driven by a combination of social, political, historic, economic and cultural forces that constitute and shape the fabric of society. Detailed and specific understanding of this is the key to creating or recreating a functioning, supportive social fabric that can contribute to an end to protracted violence. The rebuilding of peaceful relations based on trust and mutual respect depends on this kind of reconstruction.

Researchers have to follow two agendas -- a more generalist one, based on the study of different scenarios and settings of violent societies, and a more specialised one, defining the nature and specifics of each conflict under scrutiny. This combination of defining the general and particular perspectives allows the researcher to produce meaningful work. Such work might eventually, if effectively communicated to the appropriate actors inside and outside a violent society's community, lead to an improved response to the local and external management of internal conflicts. A blueprint to resolve violent conflicts in and between societies does not exist. However any emerging principles are enhanced in their effectiveness through the knowledge of local circumstances and causes of violence. The researcher has to follow those two agendas, inform both external and internal actors, and strive towards bringing them together to act in unity to prevent, alleviate and resolve violence within groups and societies.

The contributors to the project on Researching Violent Societies met from 28-31 March 1999 in Derry/Londonderry and Belfast, Northern Ireland. The project was organised by the Initiative on Conflict Resolution and Ethnicity (INCORE). INCORE is an initiative set up by the United Nations University and the University of Ulster with the mandate to serve as a key global centre for research, policy and programme development in the field of ethno-political conflict and conflict resolution. INCORE is grateful to the Central Community Relations Unit, the British Academy and the United Nations University for funding this event. This essay summarises some of the central points and ideas that emerged from the participants at the meeting. The authors are closely involved in this undertaking: Gillian Robinson and Marie Smyth direct the project, and Albrecht Schnabel is one of its participants. The meeting programme and paper abstracts can be found at the following address: Researching Violent Societies: Programme & Papers

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