Reflections on ECAS and Fieldwork in African Conflict areas by Marsha Henry

Attending the European Convention of Africa Studies this past June for the first time, it was encouraging to see several panels devoted to methodological questions raised by conducting research in African conflict areas and violent settings.  The topics discussed in the multiple sessions included, amongst others, how researchers make sense of proximity and distance in relation to field methodologies, participants and epistemologies; how researchers negotiate the unstable and insecure settings; and how the research experience and context affects a researcher’s own identities, narratives and representations.  One roundtable, in particular, brought many key ethical dilemmas and methodological challenges into sharp focus, and provided some opportunities for interdisciplinary discussion and debate.  However, the discussions revealed a number of gaps, which I think are worth exploring in order to push methodological discussions within Africa Studies further.  In particular, I argue that methodological discussions should reflect on the identities of researchers when considering issues of proximity and distance.  Who the researcher is, and how they are socially, culturally and economically located in the world, is of significance in any reflections on the challenges encountered in insecure field sites in Africa.  In doing so, I hope to both acknowledge the genealogy of research privilege that haunts such discussions, and draw attention to the limits of perspectives that emanate from a homogenously racialised and embodied experience that can perpetuate an unacknowledged Euro-centric researcher habitus.

The roundtable organised by the Collaborative Research Group (CRG) on Violent Conflict was titled ‘Conducting Fieldwork In African Conflict Areas:  Methodological Questions On Proximity’.  The roundtable consisted of a diverse array of European scholars from the CRG who began addressing a number of fieldwork ‘challenges’ including: the methodological challenges of conducting fieldwork in violent and unstable settings; the ethical challenges of researcher-led vs. locally-led fieldwork during times of insecurity; and the ontological challenges of fieldwork conducted in the ‘heat of the battle’ or in the post-battle aftermath.  A number of organising questions were introduced to help guide the researchers to comment on how proximity and distance can be a ‘window for a broader reflection on the relationship between the researcher and his/her research topic and on methodological flexibility in unstable research contexts’. Mareike Schomerus (LSE) began discussions by exploring how the concepts of proximity and distance are not simple categories, but rather raise further questions.  What types of proximity exist?  Consequently, how can researchers measure proximity?  And in what ways should researchers prioritise physical proximity to fields and people, and in what spaces is this most appropriate, or even, urgent?  Schomerus argued that discussions of proximity must also account for temporality and not just spatiality.  For example, how long might a researcher need to spend in the field, in order to develop epistemic and physical embeddedness?  Following Schomerus, Timothy Raeymaekers (Zurich University) outlined his own fragmented and unconventional research trajectory as grounds for a more phenomenological approach to proximity.  He talked of oscillating between activist roots and academic research in the discipline of geography.  In his account, proximity is considered along a political continuum, where the research and the researcher are politically situated. Raeymaekers pushed the ideas of proximity and distance beyond the literal, asking the audience to think about how close researchers could, and should, be to political and practical ends, as well as to ethical commitments of social transformation.  In this way, Raeymakers argues for thinking about proximity beyond its utilitarian purposes as simply a means for collecting data.  Maria Ericsson-Baaz (NAI and Gothenburg), with a standpoint originating our of the interdisciplinary field of Conflict Studies, approached issues of proximity and distance by drawing on her own longstanding field experiences in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  She questioned whether it is ethical for researchers to hire local research assistants when fieldwork sites are deemed too insecure for researchers. Whose safety do we prioritise in research projects? Her insights reveal that power relations across the home and abroad divide persist, almost more so when researchers decide to stay put rather than when they are up close.  Maya Christensen (University of Copenhagen) continued to draw attention to issues of power by outlining her experiences of working closely with regular and irregular soldiers in Sierra Leone.  She reflected upon the dialectic nature of fieldwork relations that catalyse individual researchers to simultaneously move close to research participants as well as distance themselves in a variety of ways.  What Christensen makes clear is that the choreography of such encounters cannot be rehearsed as they emerge in the context of fieldwork.  Instead, she suggests that there is ‘no right form of ethnographic engagement’ and in her own experiences found that fieldwork relations often entailed ‘mutual exploitation’ between research participants and researchers.  Morten Bøås (FAFO) continued some of the discussion when he examined the advantages and disadvantages of being present in the ‘heart of the matter’ or the ‘heat of the battle’.  Importantly, Boas suggests that proximity itself during outbreaks of war or instability may result in ‘losing a sense of almost everything’.  Here Bøås takes the discussion of proximity to the emotional, psychological and ontological level by revealing the ways in which fieldwork in conflict contexts may blur the lines between the research project and the affective relationships cultivated by the researcher in local settings.  Finally, Karel Arnaut (Gottingen) highlights the importance of situating the researcher her/himself in the research narrative.  In this way, intimacy and the personal are no longer hidden transcripts, but are part and parcel of the dialectic relationships formed during fieldwork.  Arnaut takes on issues of proximity and distance through the visual metaphor, arguing that the synoptic is an important aspect of the research process.  Thus moving from Bøås’ point about the ontologics of the moment, Arnaut argues for a politics of continual reflection, using researchers’ partial and angular perspectives rather than discarding them.  In addition, he advocates for dwelling on the moments when things ‘go wrong’ as an opportunity to gauge closeness, embeddedness as well as detachment.  Each participant, as well as the two discussants (Mats Utas (NAI) and Karen Büscher (University of Ghent) laboured over the concepts of proximity and distance, and contributed to the crafting of a new conceptual lexicon and intellectual terrain for thinking about fieldwork in African conflict areas.

While the panel was meant to be an opener to discussing a variety of interesting and important issues, there was an extremely large methodological and ethical elephant in the room.  What about the researcher’s cultural, ‘racial’ and national identity?  How could this be considered in relation to questions of proximity and distance?  While a few of the panelists spoke of the importance of embodied research, none turned their attention on their own embodied geopolitical position vis-à-vis Africa itself.  This is not to argue that the researchers were not acutely aware of power relations in the field, as all of the presentations were centrally concerned with reflecting on the dilemma moments in order to make visible enduring power inequalities in research relationships.  But the silence on their own proximity to privilege, I argue, serves to reproduce the invisibility, centricity and normativity of the European researcher in dominant fieldwork accounts. The privileged bodies that move in and out of African field sites seem to encounter moral quandaries, yet few material limitations.  But I am making these assumptions on the unstated personal histories and scholastic archives of the researchers.  It is likely that the researchers did not wish to rehash old debates about the researcher as all powerful or diminishing power relations through rapport and friendship, or even to navel gaze and therefore elide some of the more sensitive issues of fieldwork in conflict settings.  Nevertheless, what they did not say seems to have provided a space for a new and perhaps, difficult discussion.

What different synoptics might there be for the ‘native’, hybrid, diasporic, subaltern or exiled researcher?  What kinds of insecurities, tensions and pulls might a researcher face if s/he was returning ‘home’ to conduct research in the very place that s/he fled previously?  Questions of proximity are deeply important to national affiliations and sense of belongings and an African diasporic researcher might tell a very different tale of fieldwork.  The epistemic privilege afforded most researchers in Europe provides a different aperture for reflections on fieldwork especially because researchers can generally leave fields, return to ‘peaceful’ homes, and reflect on the fieldwork process from the relative comfort of the ivory tower and in the shadow of a functioning and possibly benevolent state.  A different type of researcher, one with a non-conventional researcher habitus might view their experiences differently – where there is no demarcated entry to the field and where their own biographical narrative is one of constant war and conflict, with punctuations of peace, rather than one of consistent peace with ‘heat of the battle’ episodes.  Such researchers may carry with them a bifurcated sense of home and the field; they may be already and always written into the political landscape; they may be obligated to employ friends, family and kin to carry out various aspects of field research; and they may not be in a position to make mistakes, let alone dwell on them in their reflections of fieldwork.  It might be politically and professionally dangerous for such researchers to devote time to exploring the things that ‘went wrong’.

These discussions owe some debt to anthropology, where questions of methodological and ethical angst have been the concern of researchers for some time now.  But it is not only anthropology that suffers from this epistemic baggage.  Geography, conflict studies, sociology and more recently performance studies scholars have been struggling with issues of power relations, the politics of representation and the home and abroad binary.  Although the roundtable provided an opportunity to rethink some of these issues across disciplinary boundaries and through broader metaphors of proximity and distance (although one could argue that these are themselves detaching frames from the outset), ultimately, I argue that the discussions distracted the wider European Africa Studies research community from acknowledging that much of the production of knowledge about Africa lies firmly in the hands of privileged Europeans, and fieldwork reflections are no exception. Thus, I argue that who the researcher is or identifies as, is as important to questions of proximity and distance as who the participants are and where and under what circumstances the research takes place.   As such, this is more than a plea for transparency and accountability, or to reflexivity in a more general sense.  Rather it is for a simultaneous insistence on geographical introspection on the part of researcher and the incorporation of unconventional researchers into research and academic forums concerned with fieldwork experiences of proximity and distance in African conflict areas.

Marsha Henry is Lecturer in Gender, Development and Globalisation at the LSE Gender Institute, where she teaches, amongst other things, a course on gender and militarism. Her most recent research is into sexual exploitation in peacekeeping missions and peacekeeper labour hierarchies, and she is also, with Paul Higate, author of Insecure Spaces: Peacekeeping, Power and Performance in Haiti, Kosovo and Liberia (Zed, 2009).


  1. Charlotte Mertens

    October 9, 2013 at 4:22 am

    Interesting and insightful post! Just wondering how you deal with this in your own research? Being a western, white female researcher myself, is insisting on geographical introspection sufficient?

  2. Charlotte, you raise a good point because I’m definitely not advocating that research on Africa should only be done by certain groups of people or that research should end up re-centering the researcher. I would categorise myself as an unconventional researcher, but as we all know any label is context dependent. I wrote about this with former colleagues in relation to shifting and contradictory categories in the field where myself and my colleague were read as white: (Henry, M., Higate, P., & Sanghera, G. (2009). Positionality and power: the politics of peacekeeping research. International peacekeeping, 16(4), 467-482. Perhaps a first step might be a call for subaltern researchers to reflect on their research experiences in African conflict zones and how this shaped their research findings, followed by a conversation with researchers who have been doing so already (as in members of the ECAS roundtable). This would enable unconventional researchers to identify key themes from their own experiences, and to possibly intervene in the discussions with new perspectives. I would imagine that there would be points of connection as well as departure. What do you think?

  3. Charlotte Mertens

    October 13, 2013 at 9:14 am

    Hi Marsha, thank you for your reply. I will definitely read the articles you mention. I am interested to know how you define the ‘unconventional researcher’. One problematic issue is that once you start labelling, you do end up categorising researchers and ultimately defining who can research Africa and who can’t. Often, the discussion becomes then quite racialised. I recently gave a paper here at Melbourne at the Institute of Postcolonial Studies. A small Congolese community was present and no matter how critical I was to the west, no matter how ‘self-reflexive’ I had been, I still ended up being ‘the Other’. It often feels like walking a tight rope. Finding the right balance really is key. Still, these encounters are crucial as they encourage you to think hard about your positionality. I absolutely agree there are ethical, methodological and mostly postcolonial challenges involved as a western researcher on Africa. Are ethnographic research, geographical introspection and a sense of ‘hyper-self-reflexivity’ on proximity and distance enough to be labelled an unconventional researcher? I have found the work of Abu-Lughod, Kogacioglu and Shalhoub-Kevorkian (all anthropologists) incredibly helpful in dealing with these challenges. Geographical introspection (‘yes, I am from the empire’) is important but maybe for me the most crucial aspect within the ‘hyper self-reflexivity’ domain is being mindful of the ego-boosting experiences. For example, conducting fieldwork (the ‘I-was-there-so-I-know-what-I-am-talking-about-argument’) can be a huge ego-booster but often clouds our ability to see ‘reality’.That’s why I agree with you on the importance of reflecting and sharing your experiences with all type of researchers (subaltern or not) as this is often a humbling and grounding moment in which you open up to share your experiences and incorporate theirs. But this is probably a different topic. I will first read your article before I continue.. Thank You.

  4. Charlotte, again you raise some important issues to think about especially in relation to wanting my cake and eating it too. I am not sure I want to set out strict parameters about who can and cannot be an unconventional researcher. On the other hand, I think it is important to think about racialisation as it relates to the politics and production of knowledge. Who, a researcher is identified and self-identified as has implications for the research process and product. Your example of othering is an important one because it demonstrates that differences can feature in the field in unexpected ways. But the analysis of the exercise of power cannot remain at the interpersonal level, in my opinion. Does the practice of othering you fundamentally shift relations globally? Or more specifically, does it result in you not being able to carry out your research? I’ve been re-reading lots of work on standpoint theory recently for teaching and think it might useful for thinking further about a range of issues.

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