Safer and fairer: The value of cooperative approaches to fieldwork by Philipp Lottholz, University of Marburg

Recent pieces on reflexivity and the role of emotions during fieldwork on this platform have made it abundantly clear that fieldwork in foreign countries can be very challenging and brings up multiple questions and dilemmas that researchers need to navitage. A recent contribution by Mohira Suyarkulova on the Central Asian context has extended the critical view on fieldwork by pointing out that, in order to counter extractive forms of knowledge production that serve to orientalise the region, fieldwork should be an engagement on an equal footing with subjects. Embracing such an approach, argued Suyarkulova, can help to inverse the usual hierarchies of academic research and make it an endeavour of emancipation and liberation.

But how can researchers go about such cooperative and possibly dialogical knowledge production, while also avoiding the biases and disadvantages that they can incur? This piece presents the argument made in a co-authored article on the role of cooperation, networks and framing in fieldwork, which was recently reprinted in the edited collection Critical Approaches to Security in Central Asia (Routledge, edited by Edward Lemon). It spells out three arguments on the preconditions of cooperation during fieldwork, the role of networks and the necessity to manage the framing and communication of one’s research.

Preconditions of cooperative research

When thinking about or arranging a cooperative research project, it is indispensable to realistically assess and navigate the context for which it is intended. Analysing the context of the Kyrgyz Republic in Central Asia, we perceived the paradoxical situation: the legal framework, laid out in the Law on Science and the Foundations of the State Scientifico-technical Policy provides for researchers’ ‘free expression of their scientific views and the protection from any attacks on the freedom of their work’, and endorses the ‘exchange of scientific information and joint research with foreign colleagues’ (Article 18). The reality in the country is a different one, however, as security organs and state actors seem to consider independent research … a nuisance and interference in domestic politics and therefore aim to preclude research activities by journalists and social researchers alike. This appears to be driven by concerns stemming from recent revolutions in the years 2005 and 2010, inter-communal clashes in the country’s south in 2010 and more recent, although not uncontested, findings that many ISIS foreign fighters hail from Central Asia.

Security and law enforcement organs’ attempts to prevent research into such topics often seem misconceived or even arbitrary, however. Exemplary cases are those of the US journalist Umar Farooq who was detained and eventually expelled from the country on allegations that he was carrying ‘extremist material’ in the form of videos of supposedly radicalising speeches. In another high-profile case, the offices of the international NGO Freedom House, now no more present in Kyrgyzstan, and its local partner organisation were raided and they were kept from conducting surveys on interethnic relations and minority rights, which the State Agency responsible for such topics considered inappropriate not least as the NGOs had not coordinated with them as usual.

These and other cases of researchers, journalists and NGOs being interrogated, detained and prevented from doing their work, create a major uncertainty as to the legal status and safety implications of [research] work. This unclear status may not be indicated by visible, palpable or explicit warning signs, but only become apparent in particular situations or in hindsight. At the same time as authorities appear to attempt to monopolise control over information on and representation of issues pertaining to national security, there are no clear channels for obtaining researcher visas or permissions from State Agencies and Ministries, which have often – retrospectively – claimed authority to regulate investigation and knowledge production in the past.

In this unregulated context, we argue that the obvious safety risks associated with research can best, if not only, be navigated with the help of trustworthy interlocutors and collaborators, who are valuable in providing researchers advice and help in conducting their fieldwork. This is especially pertinent for inexperienced individuals, but also for other ones more familiar with the country. As we further show in the article, such collaboration can occur in the form of a long-term cooperative project that aims to produce knowledge in a dialogue and on a par with partners on the ground. This can, as shown in another piece, provide a basis for participatory observation and practice-based analysis of community security projects and the way they address and prevent security risks in alignment with state security interests on the one hand, and those of local dwellers, on the other. Two aspects are key in such cooperative and dialogical projects, but also in attempts to navigate safety risks in one-off and short term endeavours: that of networking and that of framing and communicating one’s research.

The advantage and path dependency of networks

As already stated, contacts with local interlocutors can be vital for researchers to assess the risks of doing research, and to be sure whether their research is viable in a given context in the first place. To that end, a key purpose of networks is to provide access to a given group or community that the researcher seeks to do research on. We illustrate this with two vignettes, the first coming from Nurbek Bekmurzaev’s research on the life of the – now deceased – imam Rafiq Qori from the town of Kara-Suu in southern Kyrgyzstan. After initially being unsuccessful with his requests for interviews with the imam’s religious circle, the researcher had his project presented to the protagonist’s eldest son Rashodkhan. The latter approved of what appeared a promising attempt to capture the life story of his father and instructed his small community that Nurbek was a trustworthy conversation partner. This served to remove all the barriers to the research, reports Nurbek:

‘None of the participants dwelled on where I was from and where I studied. Since I had been granted access to the network of people everyone considered it safe to talk to about Rafiq Qori. Even Rafiq Qori’s brother, who had earlier pretended to be busy and turned down my request, agreed to participate, after I showed up at his door with Rashodkhan’s vouching.’

The second example of Joshua Meyer’s experience shows that networking and trust-building can be indispensable even for research that does not concern issues of religion, or of security, peace and conflict as discussed above. Intent to build a linguistic corpus of Kyrgyz language, including as many accents and dialects from as many regions and speakers as possible, Josh had toured the country and so far succeeded in making numerous people talk about mundane topics for this entirely unpolitical research. In the southwestern province capital of Batken, however, he and his research assistant, who hailed from the north of the country, were continuously failing to persuade people to participate. The concerns that local people raised ranged from the fact that they did not know the foreign researcher and his non-local assistant, to entirely unexpected questions like, ‘But what if your government decides to confiscate your recordings and use them for their own purposes?’ This story ends with a Batken-based friend finally providing the researcher access through an invitation to a meal with his family, who, after making acquaintances, not only agree to have recordings made but also help recruit further friends and neighbours for the recording of a comprehensive data set of Batken dialect, after all.

Both of these examples show how important and possibly necessary networking contacts are as a precondition for access, and as a way for both researcher and research participants to navigate the risks of fieldwork. Especially in rural communities, but also elsewhere, where security service investigations are not a rare phenomenon following the visits of foreigners, making sure not to be the only person to engage with foreign researchers in a given community appears to be a viable insurance for research participants. That said, networks also bring with them some baggage. Some networks are mutually exclusive, as connection to one network may open some doors, but may also close others. This has been convincingly shown both in Nurbek’s research example above, but also in the research of Madeleine Reeves on neighbouring Kyrgyz and Tajik border communities in the Ferghana valley.

Furthemore, the significant difference in people’s readiness to participate should make researchers reflect on the reliability and possible biases of the data they collect with the help of networks. Natalie Koch has argued in reflection on her research with focus groups in Kazakhstan that people may perceive interactions with researchers as an occasion to demonstrate their knowledge of, compliance with, and ability to recite government-sanctioned narratives, while considering their personal opinions and life situations irrelevant. This is just one example of how the pressures and power relations characterising the fieldwork context might filter into the data gathered and thus require further reflection and triangulation.

Framing and communication

This leads to the final aspect of cooperative research in challenging fieldwork settings: the way the scope, object(s) and outputs of research are framed and communicated is key in conveying the benefits, risks and expectations associated with participation in it. Thus, by framing projects in more general and open terms and dispensing with other ones that could be risky and raise security services’ attention, a researcher can soothe concerns and win over participants and cooperation partners. In a vignette on my own research, I show how focusing on the adaptation and resistance to globally dominant governance and statebuilding norms was helpful in establishing cooperation with a local NGO and avoiding unpleasant encounters with the state security services. Yet more strategically, in his research on the reasons of the prevention of violent conflict in the southern Kyrgyzstani town of Özgön amidst widespread ethnic clashes in June 2010, Nurbek Bekmurzaev framed his inquiry around the ‘victory of the Ozgon people in favour of order, stability, and inter-ethnic unity and friendship’. Addressed as ‘community leaders and ‘saviours’ of their home town’, his respondents were much more enthused to participate and tell their story than they would have been otherwise.

On the other hand, such framings also incur biases and liabilities that need to be navigated by researchers. They can indeed risk the glorification and the reproduction of a ‘harmony ideology’ that makes people see only the good things, to the point of denying the persistence of conflicts and tensions. Worse so, a particular framing can produce silences and blind spots with regard to the conflicts, human rights violations and extortion that people may be suffering in a given context, which can remain unseen and unheard of by the researcher.

Avoiding such a ‘Potemkin village effect’ – named after the the villages built by Russian emperor Peter to convey a sense of ideal rural life to foreign visitors, is equally important as being honest with interlocutors and research participants. Many publications on fieldwork in ‘authoritarian’ and ‘closed’ contexts argue that being clear and honest about one’s research topic is often impossible, and so researchers should reframe their research (Loyle); devise ‘opening narratives’ that put interviewees ‘at ease’ (Markowitz); and generally ‘be flexible’ about communication (Malekzadeh). We acknowledge that the covert nature of such ‘bending’ and ‘flexibilisation’ of one’s research framing may indeed, as David Calvey has convincingly argued, be necessary to make research viable. At the same time, however, such covert research requires critical reflection as to its exclusionary effects, as research participants are cut off, by virtue of their (partial) unawareness, from the further steps in the knowledge production process. Furthermore, the idea of leaving the processing, analysis and interpretation of data with the researcher feeds into the one-way trajectory of Western-centric knowledge extraction which both Suyarkulova and others, like Anssi Paasi or Lisa Tilley, have criticised as a problematic trend in a Western-centric political economy of academic knowledge production.

Situated in this critical approach to social research, our article seeks to show how researchers ultimately have room to decide themselves how to position themselves within (or without) this problematic global structural relations and whether to reproduce or challenge them with their research. A cooperative and dialogical approach to fieldwork is certainly safer – as it helps both researchers and research participants navigate risks – and fairer – as it seeks to involve participants and partners on the ground more comprehensively into the research process, e.g. by giving them the chance to express their opinion and potential disagreement with research. That said, it is indisputable that this more holistic and emancipatorily oriented approach also incurs more work for the researcher as they have to accommodate multiple timelines, to communicate across language barriers, and to negotiate the diverging priorities of multiple stakeholders.

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