Researching Violent Societies:
Methodological and Ethical Challenges
Gillian Robinson, Albrecht
Schnabel and Marie Smyth
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
and Dissemination: Making a Difference
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.
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"
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.
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?
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.
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.
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