Decolonizing Fieldwork: A Practical Guide for the Humanities and Social Sciences
Editors: Kira Jumet (Hamilton College) and Merouan Mekouar (York University)
In January 2016, the brutal killing of Giulio Regeni, a 28-year-old Cambridge University student who was conducting fieldwork in Cairo, Egypt, marked a turning point for Western scholars working on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The abduction, torture, and subsequent death of the young graduate student shook the academic community focusing on that area of the world and reminded many more of the numerous difficulties faced by researchers conducting fieldwork in authoritarian settings. Since then, a number of new publications have sought to examine the challenges faced by social scientists conducting research in the MENA region (Bank and Busse (2021), Krause and Szekely (2020), Clark and Cavatorta (2018), among others) as well as other non-democratic regions such as Central Asia (Janenova 2019, Driscoll 2021), parts of the Caribbean (Bell 2013), parts of Sub-Saharan Africa (Laher, Fynn and Kramer 2019), Eastern Europe and Russia (Goode 2010, 2016), and East Asia (Reny 2016, Wang 2019).
However, while these contributions addressed and theorized about the important challenges faced by Western academics conducting research under authoritarian regimes (Glasius et al. 2018, Grimm et al. 2020), they largely failed to examine the distinct difficulties confronted by native scholars, such as Chinese Uyghur historian Iminjan Seydin, who was disappeared and sent to a government work program (Yang 2020), and Walid al-Shobky, an Egyptian graduate student disappeared after conducting a research interview and later accused of “spreading false news and joining a terrorist group” (Mada Masr 2018). Thus, while native academics face many of the
challenges highlighted in existing publications (i.e., surveillance, ethical questions related to research involving vulnerable populations, access to informants, personal safety, and data security), they also face additional risks and distinct obstacles, the discussion of which has been consistently absent in the literature. These challenges include governmental pressure on friends and family, legal threats from local authorities, questionable access to consular assistance for dual nationals, influence of ascribed characteristics on social interactions, and exploitation by Western colleagues.
The proposed manuscript seeks to address this important gap in the literature. The first section will present testimonies from scholars who conducted fieldwork in their native repressive countries and who faced sets of challenges directly related to their position as native scholars. These researchers will share their personal experiences in the field, the material and psychological hurdles they faced while conducting research in a difficult environment and the specific strategies they developed to address these challenges. The various contributions will examine cases in some of the world’s most repressive countries, such as Algeria, Iran, Egypt, China, Russia, and Cuba.
The second section will build on the contributions collected in the first to offer practical advice to academics committed to conducting fieldwork in their native non-democratic states. The practical handbook will help graduate students, early-career researchers, and established scholars develop suitable research designs before engaging in their fieldwork, while also offering practicable coping strategies for their time in the field.
Main goals and guiding questions:
By bringing together contributions from a wide range of native academics familiar with difficult environments, the book will answer the following questions:
- What are the specific risks and challenges that native scholars experience while conducting fieldwork in repressive countries?
- What strategies have these scholars developed to address the specific risks they encounter in their work?
- What specific lessons can be drawn for research-design and fieldwork?
Contributions and Themes:
We are seeking native (or dual national) contributors from states characterized as repressive or authoritarian (e.g., rated Not Free or Partly Free by Freedom House) willing to write empirical and/or analytical pieces about the challenges they faced while conducting fieldwork in their home country. The contributions should fit within one of the following themes:
1- Weight of family history/ethnic identity/religious identity.
While Western colleagues often experience the burden of various identity markers such as family histories, ethnic identities, and religious affiliations, these markers often take on oversized importance in the cases of native scholars conducting fieldwork in their home countries. In particular, they may face more resistance when conducting research among wary compatriots who regard them with suspicion, or even hostility.
2- Gender identity/sexual orientation.
Gender identity and sexual orientation can be a challenge for academics conducting research in any setting. However, native scholars working in illiberal settings cannot benefit from the relative tolerance extended to foreigners and must scrupulously adhere to local cultural norms and laws.
3- Legal and penal threats to native scholars (including banning and purging) The arrests of Alexander Sodiqov in Tajikistan in 2014 and Fariba Adelkhah in Iran in 2019 illustrate the dangers that native academics experience when conducting fieldwork in non democratic settings. However, while these two cases have received some coverage, many other jailed academics such as Moroccan historian Dr. Maati Monjib, regularly detained in his home country, or Dr. Konstantin Syroyezhkin, a Kazakh academic jailed for 10 years and stripped of his citizenship in 2019 (Radio Free Europe 2019), have received comparatively little attention from international media outlets or even academic circles. In addition to legal risks, native scholars, many of whom work in universities where job security is contingent on the ruling regime’s approval, also face significant professional risks.
4- Risks to friends and families of native scholars.
In addition to the risks outlined above, the families of native academics critical of their repressive governments have been targeted by those governments. In some cases, the partners, parents, or friends of native researchers have experienced harassment or threats, suffered house raids without a warrant, incurred travel bans, or been arrested.
5- Exploitation by foreign scholars and foreign agents.
Many native scholars are approached over the course of their research with the expectation that they will provide various services to their non-native colleagues (e.g., contacts). These solicitations often carry material and/or psychological costs, and the contributions of native scholars are often only superficially recognized, if acknowledged at all. Moreover, native scholars may also be approached by a range of foreign actors whose goals and interests are not always clear. These foreign actors can include embassy personnel, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and members of intelligence services.
Contributions should be 5000 to 7000 words in length (including bibliographies) and should follow a Chicago citation style. Interested contributors are invited to send a 250-400 word abstract to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com and indicate which dominant theme they would like to address in their contribution.
Akerman, James R. 2017. Decolonizing the Map: Cartography from Colony to Nation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Azadovskii, Konstantin, and Boris Egorov. 2002. “From Anti-Westernism to Anti-Semitism: Stalin and the Impact of the “Anti-Cosmopolitan” Campaigns on Soviet Culture.” Journal of Cold War Studies 4 (1): 66-80.
Bank, André, and Jan Busse. 2021. “MENA Political Science Research a Decade after the Arab Uprisings: Facing the Facts on Tremulous Grounds.” Mediterranean Politics 1–24. Bell, Karen. 2013. “Doing Qualitative Fieldwork in Cuba: Social Research in Politically Sensitive Locations.” International Journal of Social Research Methodology 16 (2): 109-124. Clark, Janine A., and Francesco Cavatorta, . 2018. Political Science Research in the Middle East and North Africa: Methodological and Ethical Challenges. New York: Oxford University Press.
Clibbon, Jennifer. 2014. “Alexander Sodiqov, University of Toronto researcher, being detained in Tajikistan.” CBC, July 17.
Driscoll, Jesse. 2021. Doing Global Fieldwork: A Social Scientist’s Guide to Mixed-Methods Research Far from Home. New York: Columbia University Press.
Goode, Paul J. 2016. “Eyes Wide Shut: Democratic Reversals, Scientific Closure, and the Study of Politics in Eurasia*: Eyes Wide Shut.” Social Science Quarterly 97 (4): 876–93.
———. 2010. “Redefining Russia: Hybrid Regimes, Fieldwork, and Russian Politics.” Perspectives on Politics 8 (4): 1055–75.
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Laher, Sumaya, Angelo Fynn, and Sherianne Kramer, . 2019. Transforming Research Methods in the Social Sciences: Case Studies from South Africa. Johannesburg: Wits University Press. Mada Masr. 2018. “University of Washington PhD student, missing for 4 days, brought before prosecution and detained.” Mada Masr, May 28.
Reny, Marie-Eve. 2016. “Authoritarianism as a Research Constraint: Political Scientists in China*: Authoritarianism as a Research Constraint.” Social Science Quarterly 97 (4): 909– 22.
Wang, Zhen. 2019. Conducting Fieldwork and Interviews: Researching China’s Performance Evaluation System. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.