18 February 2014: Conducting research in conflict zones can be fraught with difficulties. Cathryn Meurn explores some of the issues


The fact is that our methodological choices and actions directly impact the results that we produce from our research
They say if you’re uncomfortable, then you’re doing something right. Over the past year I have worked in several research capacities ranging from exploring the utility of reconciliation in governance, to documenting the use of social media amongst youth in Yogyakarta in Indonesia. It has taken me a while to synthesise my thoughts on what works and what doesn’t regarding the role of the researcher, particularly in conflict analysis and conflict situations. This is what I’ve found.

The actual practice of social science research is not straightforward – this isn’t surprising, and an obvious fact to many. However, despite this we should not remain accepting of being trained in, and taking part in, outdated research methodologies. In fact, I would argue that we are often not adequately equipped or trained to accomplish what we set out to do in our research agendas.

As many of us are accustomed to, one of our first “to do’s” in beginning a research project is to complete the CITI training designed for research with human subjects. Throughout our courses, we are taught the difference between qualitative and quantitative methods (although this is more than lacking at the master’s degree level), cultural sensitivity, and if propitious enough to look out for power dynamics. The three core tenets of research ethics: informed consent, confidentiality, and having the benefits outweigh the potential harms, seem clear cut enough – until you get sucked into the process of gaining approval from your Institutional Review Board.

What emerges is the reality that “theory” and “practice” often seem opposing rather than complementary, especially when we get out in the field. Visions of having a flexible research agenda that can foster “authentic” and “elicitive” findings, as opposed to validating the common fear of a researcher – falsely fulfilling predisposed research assumptions – can feel far out of reach; particularly when attempting to gain approval from an academic institution or garnering the prospect of being published. Finding balance between your own drive and creative agenda, and that of the wider world of research, can be challenging.

When you add that to the world in which we operate, looking at social justice issues, conflict, and working across cultural contexts, it can get messy quickly. Research professionals propagate themselves to be neutral third parties, crafting and implementing interventions that are meant to take power, culture, identity, and other socio-psychological and economic factors into consideration. On top of this we typically walk towards issues and topics that many walk away from.

The fact is that our methodological choices and actions directly impact the results that we produce from our research. Thus we must be trained to place these decisions within an analytic perspective, recognising them as choices that produce specific ways of knowing and may authorise, correctly or incorrectly, certain types of conflict interventions. If this is the case, then we can begin to look at our methods as a process in which we engage the world around us, instead of a linear means to an end.

Unfortunately once we begin to do that we come to the realisation that canonical research methodologies cannot comfortably fit within this more flexible research paradigm. Even outside of this, the traditional modalities of collecting evidence through research design, proposal construction, interviewing, participant-observation, and survey methodology can cause ruptures between our goals as conflict resolution researchers and the ability to convince others that our findings are scientifically viable and rigorous.

Moreover cultural considerations and the difficulty of maintaining the ideal of informed consent within a conflict zone, let alone keeping up with technology and the way the world interacts with itself, are pushing traditional research methods to their limits. As conflict researchers sometimes lean towards the qualitative side of methodology, this requires relationships. How do you navigate them in a world where social media has taken over? Channels such as Facebook can easily mess with the protection of research subjects, or cancel out any benefits you’ve rationalised in the process (as per my experience in Indonesia).

So where does that leave us? I started this post by saying I was going to share with you what I learned. Simply, what I learned is that the one way you know you are doing research correctly is if you feel constantly uncomfortable. The reality is, although we may not agree with it, our voice as the researcher will shape the final product and broadcast the results. Ideally this will lead to something worth our endeavour, but it is a heavy weight to bear – particularly when lives or the wellbeing of others is at stake. Thus, you should be uncomfortable. I know I am.

But what’s more is maybe we should start making the wider research community uncomfortable. Our field was founded on the need for innovation, in offering a humanistic and interdisciplinary look at international relations and solving the problems of our world. It is unique not only in the fact that it straddles the worlds of research and practice, but that it draws from all the social sciences and more. Since we are trained in various aspects of social interaction, international policy, psychology, power dynamics, reflective practice, and so on – maybe we need to lead the charge in innovation for research. And if that idea makes you uncomfortable, then I think we’re on the right track.


Jaka on March 2, 2014, 4:48 a.m.

My experience in research work in developing countries, specially when about conflicts, is that one can not use a pre made method or follow a plan to find the true situation behind the publicly visible actions. One need to enter each society (each group or level) first and become part of it and experience it from being part of it, before one can see what they see. It will look totally different, because ones way of thinking and valuing will change also when living as part of that society.

Eugenia on March 2, 2014, 3:08 p.m.

Great post, Cathryn. The way research methodologies and following IRB guidelines actually plays out when doing research in the field often really does end up in opposition with your goals. Being uncomfortable shows that you're questioning, being reflective, and critical of these issues. Do you have any more stories or examples of when you've come across these issues that you're able to share?

Luc Lapointe on March 14, 2014, 7:05 p.m.

Hola Cathryn, What a refreshing article / post on your experience in the field in doing research. I am presenting tonight at a University in Cali Colombia on this topic...just getting a local university to discuss it was already a big step. Colombia will soon be in a post-conflict...not the first one but hopefully the last one this time. The success I believe will rest in a (pre) post conflict work (access to data) and post conflict strategy that will be inclusive and focus on innovation. Would love to learn more about your work. Saludos cordiales....Luc Lapointe

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