P225 – Researching with the Enemy? The Ethics of Fieldwork with Opposition, Outlaws, and Rebels in Africa
10 July, 16:00 – 17:30

Allan Joanna / University of Leeds
Mundy Jacob / Colgate University


As research into dictatorial regimes, conflict zones, and genocides proliferates, so too do concerns about the ethics of such projects. An ECAS 2013 panel and some scholars (Nordstrom and Robben 1996; Wood 2006; Sriram et.al. 2009; Thomson et al. 2012) have offered insights into the ethical implications of fieldwork in war zones. But questions concerning the responsibilities of academics conducting research in highly politicized research settings remain insufficiently addressed. From political opposition groups, to armed rebel movements, to transnational criminal organizations, conducting research with “enemies” entails a number of specific ethical and theoretical implications. Likewise, internationally recognized governments, regardless of how corrupt, violent, and democratically illegitimate, play a role in the determination of what is and what is not researched. Researchers often find themselves in positions where the enemies of the state are the truest friends of scientific progress and where full respect for research “ethics” forces questionable collaboration with state gatekeepers. However, subversive research can have the unintended consequence of making the local research environment even more hostile to future research.  This panel attempts to provide a space for the sharing of experiences and debate on such issues with a view to informing future ethical and responsible research with “enemies.”

La recherche avec l’ennemi? L’éthique du travail de terrain avec l’opposition, les hors la loi, et les rebelles en Afrique
Avec le développement de la recherche sur les régimes dictatoriaux, les zones de conflit, et les génocides cela a augmenté les inquiétudes vis-à-vis de l’éthique de ces projets. Un atelier à l’ECAS 2013 et certains chercheurs (Nordstrom et Robben 1996 ; Wood 2006 ; Sriram et al. 2009 ; Thomson et al. 2012) ont mis en lumière les implications éthiques du travail de terrain dans les zones de guerre. Mais, les responsabilités des chercheurs travaillant sur des objets hautement politisés, restent encore peu étudiées. Groupes d’opposition politique, mouvements rebelles armés, ou encore organisations criminelles transnationales, les recherches avec des « ennemis » comportent des conséquences éthiques et théoriques. De même, des gouvernements internationalement reconnus — quel que soit leur niveau de corruption, de violence, et/ou de légitimité démocratique— jouent un rôle dans la détermination de ce qu’il est permis ou non de chercher. Les chercheurs se retrouvent souvent dans des situations où les ennemis de l’État sont les vrais amis du progrès scientifique et où le plein respect de l’« éthique » de la recherche oblige à une collaboration douteuse avec les gardiens de l’État. Toutefois, la recherche subversive peut avoir des conséquences imprévues quitte à rendre l’environnement local de la recherche encore plus hostile pour de futures recherches. Ce panel se veut un espace d’échange d’expériences et de débats sur ces questions pour de futures recherches éthiques et responsables avec l’« ennemi ».

Paper 1

Allan Joanna / University of Leeds

Risks, “white lies” and the academic as activist: attempting feminist fieldwork in Western Sahara and Equatorial Guinea

The ethical dilemmas of researchers take on new gravity in contexts of political violence. When attempting to arrange fieldwork amongst resistance movements in Western Sahara and Equatorial Guinea, questions regarding the risks to informants and the appeasement of state authorities were pertinent. Faced with such concerns, some researchers advocate an “activist stance,” by using action research methodologies and ensuring the coproduction of knowledge. However, due to the way my PhD funding works, such an approach was infeasible. Using my research project to directly aid the movements was another possibility. Indeed, there is a growing enthusiasm for researchers working on resistance movements to take on the role of the “activist-scholar,” that is, to develop work designed to be beneficial to the movements one studies. On the other hand, there are limits as to how useful (and indeed timely and accessible) academic research can be. As Croteau (2005: 2) has put it, “[b]ecoming an academic to support social movements is akin to launching a space program to develop a pen that writes upside down. At best, it is a circuitous route.” My paper asks if a more suitable approach is to be an activist and an academic: the researcher accepts that their academic work may be of limited use to the movement she studies but commits to aiding a movement in other ways, through campaigning, for example. Even then, though, can a well-intentioned end truly justify ethically questionable means?

Paper 2

Jessee Erin / University of Strathclyde

Yolande Bouka / Institute for Security Studies, Nairobi

Negotiating “the Enemy” in Post-Genocide Rwanda: Dilemmas in Research Among Génocidaires, Political Opponents, and Other Undesirables

This paper addresses the ethical challenges of working among legally and socially defined “enemies of the state” in post-genocide Rwanda. We approach post-genocide Rwanda as a highly politicized research setting, wherein the government seeks to control how people speak about their nation’s past and present. Drawing upon Robben’s theory of ethnographic seduction, whereby participants structure their narratives to convince the researcher to adopt their truths, we analyse oral historical encounters with convicted génocidaires (those found guilty of perpetrating crimes during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide), released prisoners (those who have been accused and imprisoned under suspicion of having participated in the genocide), members of the political opposition in exile, and Rwandan civilians who due to actual or perceived political opinions have been identified as political subversives. Exposure to these narratives poses critical ethical challenges, particularly in terms of contextualising the human rights violations endured by our “enemy” participants in relation to the crimes of which they have been accused by the post-genocide government. Similarly important is the realization that engagement in any meaningful way with “enemy” narratives places researchers at risk of being identified as political subversives by the Rwandan government and its supporters, impacting researchers’ ability to disseminate the outcomes of their research and ensure ongoing access in Rwanda.

Paper 3

Omar Sidi / Universitat Jaume I de Castelló

Researching in Conflict Zones: the Case of Western Sahara

The Western Sahara conflict has generally received scant attention from the academic community. Lately however the trend has been changing largely due to the shifting dynamics of the conflict itself. In recent years, a number of scholarly publications have begun focusing on acts of contestation and activism of local civil society organisations in the Moroccan-occupied territories of Western Sahara. Others have investigated the variety of abuses committed against the indigenous population of the territory. Most of these studies, which were conducted within an intensely political and risky environment, raise a number of ethical and practical questions bearing on doing research in conflict zones. Thus, it is significant to examine the political and ethical choices that researchers are bound to make under such circumstances concerning research participants living in situations of political oppression and persecution. It is also pertinent to explore to what extent researchers can maintain an objective, disinterested posture, and hence avoid position taking, when faced with actual situations of injustice, oppression and human rights abuses. Overall, the paper intends to explore this series of questions in the context of the Western Sahara conflict and to provide insight into cases of activist scholarship that seek to create spaces for oppressed communities to make their voices heard in the academia and beyond.

Paper 4

Thomson Susan / Colgate University

Gatekeepers and their Gatekeepers: Working with Local Officials to Gain Access in Urban Kenya and Rural Rwanda

Working with gatekeepers is an important but little theorized aspect of talking to people in conflict or post-conflict settings. Entering the field for the first time, gaining access and becoming accepted by local actors in highly politicized research settings is a painstaking business, and there is an air of mystery about the process of doing so. Gaining access to local actors is a relational process in which gatekeepers are central actors. As such, working with gatekeepers in authoritarian, postconflict settings is central to the research enterprise to learn about how individuals survive war and go about rebuilding their lives and livelihoods. Drawing on my own experience in Rwanda and Kenya, I argue that gatekeepers are actors who are also subject to state power in myriad ways. Researcher interactions with gatekeepers potentially inform our analyses life after violence as a form of ‘meta-data’, being the rumors, inventions, denials, evasions, and silences that our informants may employ to reveal their ‘spoken and unspoken thoughts and feelings which they do not always articulate in their stories or interview responses, but which emerge in other ways’ (Fujii, 2010: 231). I conclude that in post-conflict settings, where seen talking to a researcher can invoke the suspicions of local authorities as well as friends and neighbors, meta-data are helpful in minimizing risk to our informants while maximizing our chances of finding a more complete picture of life after violence.

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