top of page
  • jamiehagen

On the fieldwork we choose NOT to do

There are so many reasons to celebrate queer refusals on our feminist killjoy journeys. As a white queer feminist I’m increasingly thinking about what fieldwork I refuse to do, and what fieldwork I discourage my students from doing, for ethical reasons, or otherwise. I’m thinking about this alongside reflecting on the harmful research practices on gender and war that can further conflict and trauma. I’m also curious how we navigate this with so little support to make these ethical choices in higher education which prioritizes productivity over slow-thinking, over caring, over holding on to long-term commitments to community.

During the ISA 2021 this year I attended the panel “Teaching Field Research in Complicated Times” and it sparked a conversation on Twitter on the research people have decided NOT to do. Many who participated in the thread have long been thinking about this in their own research, teaching and in community with other researchers.

Given the significant interest in the conversation I’ve included here details about the panel as well as the extensive conversation on Twitter during and following the panel. I share the exchanges that emerged from the conference to show others navigating these concerns that your ethical refusals are valid, you are in good company and there are spaces to continue these conversations.

About the panel (International Studies Association Convention, April 6, 2021):

Teaching field research methods is a complicated endeavor – never more so than now amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and the accompanying travel and financial restrictions. To discuss these challenges, this roundtable on field methods pedagogy draws on the knowledge and experience of scholars who have spent years both in the field and teaching such methods in the classroom. The roundtable features multiple contributors from Stories from the Field: A Guide to Navigating Field Research in Political Science, a new volume on fieldwork designed for classroom instruction that uses the personal stories of 44 researchers to provide engaging insights. The roundtable also includes founding members of the Advancing Research on Conflict (ARC) Consortium, which conducts a summer program teaching field methods and ethics. Finally, the chair of our roundtable has helped create APSA’s new “Principles and Guidance for Human Subjects Research.” Participants will reflect on teaching field methods using a variety of approaches, engaging logistical and ethical questions. Our goal is to address both how to teach field methods in “normal” times, and how to adapt that teaching to the current crisis for concerned students and faculty.

Chairs and Discussants

Chair: Ora B. Szekely (Clark University )

Participant: Ora B. Szekely (Clark University )

Participant: Peter Krause (Boston College )

Participant: William Reno (Northwestern University )

Participant: Sarah Daly (Columbia University )

Participant: Robert Ross (Boston College )

Participant: Milli M. Lake (London School of Economics )

Participant: Kate Cronin-Furman (University College London )

My tweets during the roundtable:

At #ISA2021 session on teaching field research & really feeling this call for attention to ‘afterlives of fieldwork’ from @kcroninfurman, drawing on @rkrystalli’s work. These afterlives & our commitment to them should inform our research, our teaching, our advising of fieldwork.

Now @MilliLake is speaking about the need for radical reflexivity & need to acknowledge how who you are as a human being infuses completely your research project. So important to state this directly! We know this, we live this. Who are you as a researcher? Who do you want to be? I’m really glad to hear @MilliLake responding to the question about when it is NOT appropriate to research certain questions. As Lake notes, white scholars are not incentivized to confront this at all. This is part of the anti-racist work #ISA2021 folks need to be centering now.

Also: While the ethics in fieldwork convo is spending more time w/ this discomfort of racism in IR, the marginalization of global south, harm of this work (or at least some feminists are!) those who’ve experienced research extraction have been living with it for ages. #ISA2021 I want to hear more about field work people didn’t do! Call me a feminist killjoy but this halt/refusal/learning makes me very happy to think about! #ISA2021. Realized I should be clearer I’m curious to hear about fieldwork people didn’t do for ethical reasons, especially white scholars ex: realizing you aren’t the right person to do the work or need to slow down before writing about a topic or concern over being extractive. #ISA2021

Responses to the tweet with examples of research people have decided not to do:

Dr. Phoebe Donnelly: Such a great Q. I thought I was going to interview former members of a certain rebel group while doing fieldwork in East Africa & realized it was risky for me & for them given the political context. Sometimes I feel defensive about not having that data but glad I made that choice

Roxani Kystalli: Love this question, Jamie! I reoriented a project about hierarchies of victimhood towards their bureaucratic production in response to these kinds of concerns. Wrote about it here, if others are interested.

Catherine Baker: I effectively stepped back from long-term physical fieldwork a long time ago once I'd accepted my work and personal lives lay somewhere else (also impossible to fit into UK workload rhythms outside Russell Group without megabucks funding... but that's another question...)

Heather Johnson: Yup. Sometimes we need to get out of the way, and reflect and listen, rather than taking up space - rather than considering the field something to which we are ‘entitled’ to

Anne-Katherin Kreft: Not doing field research with sexual violence victims indiscriminately. I was interested in whether and how women victims of CRSV mobilize politically. Shifted focus towards civil society actors, among whom happened to some victims, and how they understand and respond to CRSV [conflict-related sexual violence].

Dipali A I haven't done fieldwork yet but I made the decision to make the same switch: from survivors to activists working on the issue.

Helen Berents: It’s such a good & impt convo. I cancelled plans to travel to Colombia bc the youth peacebuilders I was talking to as I prepared to go indicated it was too risky for them (& my presence would increase the risk). We all should talk more about these times of non-research!

Joanne Hopkins: [Dr. Jenny Mathers tagged Joanne]Thanks Jenny! Not enough room in a tweet but 2 things I encountered. 1. Limitations imposed by ethics 2. Realisation I am part of the problem/colluding with misrepresentation as white, western woman who does not speak Arabic. BUT I can give voice to these concerns.... Talking to NGOs or English speaking refugees in the UK does not give a representative view. BUT the view of my participants are important. I have a substantial methodology discussion that represents the limitations. And rich field work chapter in progress that also exposes them

Catriona Standfield: This is the main reason my research is not on how local women experience UN mediation. As @drljshepherd says, that would be the "ghost twin" of my project.

Colomba Achielleos: I really like Laura’s explanation too...And yep, it’s why I focus my attention on the UK...

Laura J. Shepherd: Thanks for the tag-in, Catriona and Columba. Jamie, I talk about this issue a bit in the introduction to my book on UN peacebuilding. Definitely a conversation I’m keen to continue.

Catia Cecelia Confortini: Me researching breast cancer in Nigeria....for it to be ethical I should have many more years of relationships and commitments and resources to share, rather than extract...

Anne-Kathrin Kreft: I think this is an important point more broadly that I have thought about a bit. How ethical is it, really, to have inexperienced researchers go "into the field" to "collect data" without these researchers receiving proper (or any) training? The absence of training in fieldwork, interviewing, working with vulnerable or marginalized communities is so striking in graduate education. Why don't we, as a discipline, view it as problematic that people embark on fieldwork without necessary prep and skills (myself included)? This is why initiatives like this one (for conflict research) are so super important.

Professor Laura Hammond: I’ve refused to conduct RCTs with vulnerable conflict-affected populations on ethical grounds.

Abbey steele: After initially trying, I realized that tracking down IDPs from the community I studied in Colombia for interviews would frighten and potentially endanger them. I collected and analyzed archival data instead.

Lewis Turner: Hi Jamie great question - I've thought about this a lot. For me it has mainly been a choice of focus and studying powerful systems and the people/practices in them (sounds similar to @rkrystalli) which was an ethical choice about extraction & political context re Syrian men. And there's numerous things I've chosen not to say/follow-up on/write about, particularly with regard to the political context...which hasn't always felt like a straightforward ethical choice either

Mariam Salehi: Not going on field research last summer when corona case numbers were lower in the country I would have done fieldwork in than in my home country (and then continuously being told that I should just come by interview partners when interviewing remotely)

Anne-Katherin-Kreft: Yes! I have also put fieldwork on hold for the time being. Definitely while the pandemic is ongoing but also thereafter: how ethical is it to demand the time and energy of civil society actors (in my case) for my research when they're in the process of recuperating post-pandemic?

M: Important to think about that! However, my interview partners also criticised that the pandemic has been overshadowing everything and expressed a sentiment that other issues shouldn’t be forgotten about.

A: Totally agree with that too! I think a key issue here is how collaborative the research process is too...

Julia Schoneberg: @ardabilgen @AftabNasir and I wrote about why positionalities matter and our very personal field work struggles. I reoriented my research questions after realising there was no way I could legitimately speak on what I had set out to.

IllariaM: The absence of this exact conversation is something I really struggled with when re-entering academia, so thanks for asking! Having to re-design my PhD during COVID I chose not to attempt remote data collection with survivors of VAWG and work with practitioners instead. I also shifted my focus from humanitarian settings in Africa and the Middle East (where I worked as a practitioner) to Europe. Having left Italy 15 years ago, doing research in my 'home country' comes with its own challenges and power dynamics. Work in progress...

Harry Mace: @EliseInTheWoods has some wonderful insights about this, drawing on her interviews with indigenous Australian diplomats.

Maria C: As German-Colombian I do research on decolonizing potential of ethnic(ized) agency in Colombian peacebuilding. Ppl asked me to do „grassroots“ research,but I didn’t want to ruralize ethnic agency through white research. Work instead w/ ethnic top-level activists collaboratively.

Felicitas Steinhoff: Any and all research I though about doing related to the two years I've been in Afghanistan or the four years in South Africa. There are more qualified people doing similar stuff that should be supported. In all seriousness: Either fund local scholars and provide support (access! funds! editing!) or research something in your lived experience. The global south is no longer something for "us" to "study" or "explore". We need to get over that IMHO

Johanna Mannergrent Selimovic: Many wise things said in this thread. Every minute of qual. work based on interviews, conversations, hanging out etc involves reflexivity, hesitancy, slowing down. If not it *is* unethical. It is a difficult task. But research needs more of this work, not less! Find the tendency to disengage from this work (that emerges in this thread) worrisome and in itself potentially unethical. Too much armchair research already.

Lesle Mabon: Great question! I'd like to add: with financialisation + metrics of the academy (in UK at least) there's so much pressure to produce grants and papers at all costs. How can institutions better support us when the 'right' course of action is not to proceed, or to take more time?

Anke Hoeffler: Within an ongoing clinical psychology intervention in Kivu I was asked whether we could measure trust but we decided that incentivizing in trust games would be unethical. People are so poor, it would inevitably lead to upset.

Katy Long: Never published work I did in http://E.Africa re:how refugees+ migrants use/acquire identity docs. I'm very glad I did research: shaped what I went on to do next in key ways. But writing about it way too easy for people w.agendas (security/anti-immigrant etc.) to hijack

Dr. Ali Fitzgibbon: Have just had a chapter accepted on reasons not to do research during a crisis. More about self-questioning than specific projects.

Other questions raised:

Birte Vogel: Very interesting! Working on something similar at the moment. To add the counter-argument: what about moral obligations to do some of that work because we’re able to research & publish political things that in-country academics might not be able to? Where is the line? [Later in the thread, responding to previous comments]These are all very valuable insights. I would also like to see us talking about the problems that scholars who are not white and who are not based at a uni in the global north face who work on an area of the global south which is not theirs.

Jamie Hagen: This is something I’ve been talking to more people one on one about, and the challenge of how to work in exile but still be in conversation with communities left behind but which non white researchers are still very much a part of and committed to while living elsewhere. #ISA2021

Anne-Katherin Kreft: A bit different, but in Colombia I heard from several local scholars that people are a lot more hesitant to speak to Colombian researchers than to internationals. There's probably a lot to unpack here and I've contemplated the ethical implications (without conclusion)

Bilge Sahin: Very important point. access to research grants and academic resources, receiving citations and academic recognition harder to come by plus risk of political interventions in global south academia all pose problems often not understood in global north

Kyle D. Catto: The problem is all #fieldwork is extractive/unethical, even that which is well intentioned, or conducted from the standpoint of those under exam. As a respected colleague (not on Twitter) has noted: we build our careers/conferences/contracts on the backs of our research subjects.

Dr. Leaza Jernberg: I live in South Africa so maybe slightly different but I feel unable to pursue career opportunities because I have 3 young children who need me (one has learning difficulties), and even with the best paid job, I can’t earn what my husband does. I also have to worry about what happens to my kids while I am conducting research (transport/homework/ OT/Speech/Physio etc) and I have to think carefully if any risks I take for research (in a country with very high crime rate) is worth it for my children’s lives/ safety & mine

Jamie Hagen: I’m seeing a distinctly gendered dimension to who is halting field research for ethical reasons. In a discipline that continues to value going out ‘in the field’ to ‘discover’ things - what does this mean for promotion, for feminist careers? I mean, I have some hunches. #ISA2021

Dipali A: Plugging a relevant book here. It touches on a lot of the masculine ideals of fieldwork and academia. @BeccaAnnice

Rebecca Hanson: Waiting to see how long it is going to take for academic twitter, reviewers, committees, etc. to praise the “dedication” and “bravery” of researchers going back into the field as soon as possible. Though certainly this has already happened. I just haven’t caught wind of it yet.

D. You’d think a pandemic would be a good time to rethink some of the problematic expectations of fieldwork but I guess academia hates change.

Resources/writing shared:

The Advancing Research on Conflict (ARC) Consortium was founded to facilitate the development of methodological, technical, practical, and professional resources that researchers need to conduct fieldwork in fragile and violence-affected environments. Our growing network of affiliated scholars strives to pursue methodologically robust, ethical, context-sensitive research. We are committed to creating a supportive intellectual community for those interested in conducting research on issues related to, for example, violence, contentious politics, marginalization, illicit economies, and human rights.

844 views0 comments
bottom of page