The Fieldwork Dilemma in Peace Research

Between this, that, and the other, I mostly have stopped posting anything to this blog. But today a student of mine sent me an email asking about whether she should pursue a summer internship involving fieldwork with the police in Kenya, given the recent horrific Al-Shabbab attack on Garissa University College and Kenya’s militarized response and threat to close down the world’s largest refugee camp. I wrote her an email discussing some of the points I consider when deciding whether or not to do fieldwork in a violent place. It may or may not be useful for others, so I’m posting it here:

Hi [student],

Thanks for reaching out. This sort of decision is one of the most difficult and most persistent in the field of peace and conflict research, and I’m glad to see you giving it serious thought. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to answer your question for you, as it is an intensely personal one. But I can offer some considerations to help structure your own decision.

I am often asked some version of: “If we’re really interested in reducing conflict in the world, shouldn’t we be willing to go to violent areas?” That formulation of the question is obviously simplistic, and presents us with a falsely dichotomizing choice: either be safe and hypocritical in some way, or in danger and authentically engaged with our field. However, the issue is not that simple for a number of reasons. Here are a few, having only to do with the supposed necessity (or rather non-necessity, I would think) of exposing oneself to high risk of harm in this field:

  1. We don’t just work on conflict *during* hostilities. Much of our field is devoted to conflict *prevention* and/or post-conflict *reconstruction*.
  2. Many researchers (especially economists) often don’t do much fieldwork in the first place, but rely on otherwise-generated data for analysis. I remember going to a conference on Economics and Security in Cairo during the Arab Spring and being surprised that only half the participants showed up, due to security concerns.
  3. Many people in our field aren’t interested only in violence / negative peace, but conflict more generally, which can take many forms. The institutions that we use to channel conflicts are as varied as our imagination allows, so working on conflict transformation/ resolution or various aspects of building positive peace need not entail putting oneself in a violent situation.
  4. Even if you are willing to work on violent conflict, you can minimize your direct exposure to it. Moreover, the world isn’t broken in binary fashion into violent and non-violent areas. I am willing to go to areas experiencing a certain level of insecurity, but have refused to go when the risk exceeds my own personal felt risk threshold (which has dropped dramatically over the years as I got married and, later, had children).
    1. Areas experiencing high levels of generalized violence may be much less risky for certain classes of people (say, foreigners). This was the case when I went to Nigeria last year: Boko Haram had bombed the capital of Abuja (where I would be based principally), and there was intermittent farmer-pastoralist / religious violence where I was travelling, but neither of those dynamics was targeting foreigners. Conversely, areas experiencing relatively low levels of generalized violence may be much more risky for certain people. I would say that Kenya is probably in the latter camp: the al-Shabab threat is not huge, but is probably worse for Westerners and more highly educated people.
    2. There are lots of ways to avoid getting into bad situations, and mitigating bad situations you are already in (helivac coverage, etc.). [Your organization] will presumably provide a decent institutional support structure to help ensure your safety, perhaps in part through local partners. That said, [your organization] is not the IRC or some other such INGO with compounds, drivers, security personnel, “constant companions”, walkie-talkie networks, etc.
    3. That said, the thing about violent conflict is that at the local level, it is spatially and temporally unpredictable. It is not monolithic, but a sporadic, ever-changing constellation of inter-related actors, phenomena, and events. I sometimes compare conflict researchers to seismologists: we can say where and when risk is greatest, but we can’t say when or where precisely violence will occur. In fact, however, that analogy is over generous to conflict researchers, who have more or less completely failed to identify risk of conflict on occasion in areas like North Africa that wound up having major upheavals.

Against the risk you run, you may wish to weigh what you (and possibly others) stand to get out of your involvement in the project. Field experience is important, but it’s not enough in and of itself to, say, land you a job after graduation. So you might ask yourself: What skills do you stand to gain, and how marketable are they? Will the organization with which you’re going be capable of helping you network effectively to get a foot in the door of a potential employer (or even give you a job outright)?

Some — call them altruists — would further weigh the good they stand to do for others against the possible harm they risk to themselves. I tend not to do this. Most often we just don’t know (a) how societally costly the problem we are seeking to address is; (b) how effective the organization’s intervention is in reducing those costs or offsetting them with benefits; or (c) how crucial we are in helping the organization carry out its intervention. By contrast, I do have a fairly good idea of the benefits I provide to my own family and friends – all opportunity costs if I were to wind up dead. My general tendency is to err on the side of humility: I hope that my involvement with a project will make a few personal  connections, increasing mutual understanding between me and a few other people involved and thereby proving personally fulfilling to me. Beyond that, I just try to be aware of how my presence might be a harm to others, and try to minimize it.

Ultimately, you have to decide what is your personal “acceptable” level of risk, given an expected level of benefits. No one else can make that decision for you. But the faculty and I are here to help you make a well-considered call.


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