do research in political crisis (Part I)
This piece on How to…Do Research In Political Crisis is developed from an interview with a young female researcher doing work in the People’s Republic of China. She is not a citizen of the PRC, but she is a person of East Asian descent. The crises she faced included occasional crackdowns on academics, censorship on social media, and detainment concerns due to unforeseen conflicts in the local community. The interview has been anonymized for their protection, and all answers were developed from notes taken during the interview rather than direct quotation.
What was the most useful advice that you received or that you would like to pass on?
The first piece of advice is that you must prioritize your own safety. Don’t think that you have to be everywhere, that you have to witness everything, that you have to record everything. You don’t have to be there all the time, you’re never going to be everywhere all the time. Prioritize what you can do. You know that it might be useful or interesting to enter a risky situation, but you should know your limits. In the field, it’s hard to assess what’s safe or not. Especially when it’s turbulent, you have to make decisions in the moment, so err on the side of safety. You are also not a journalist, so you don’t have to get the eye-catching story. You’re an ethnographer. I can write the salacious story, but I feel like I shouldn’t be writing them in many cases. There is a tendency to attach value to “courageous” ethnographers, but the expectation can also be toxic.
Second, establish a safety network that you can trust in the local area. If you’re detained, you are ill, or you have an injury, make sure you have a local friend who can notify your embassy, family, your academic institution, etc. In extreme cases, you can consider entrusting some money to this friend for bail money, depending on your situation and local legislation. You’re never working by yourself during your fieldwork. Know what resources you can pull in. What legal support can you get, what can your embassy do for you, do you know if your family knows where you are, what connections do your fellow academics have, etc. For particularly risky situations, you might select a code word or signal to send to your network to alert them if something is wrong, or have a routine check-in (ie, you contact someone regularly and if you miss it, they know that something is wrong).
Third, some people might demand you take a stance—one person was mad at me for not taking an active stance on certain issues, but I felt like I wasn’t equipped to do that in the moment because of experience, the risk, and my foreign status. People sometimes wanted to hear certain things from me and would fish for them in conversations, and I found these to be difficult situations to navigate. Some people want to know who their friends and enemies are. If people express opinions you don’t agree with, don’t make a weird face! Some people might be amicable or friends and then express opinions that you might radically disagree with--you have to have a strategy for these situations. Of course, back up your data. If you are using cloud services, be wary of policies, terms, and practices.
Finally, don’t worry too much. Many situations are often ok if you know what you’re doing and you act sensibly. We are dealing with humans in our daily activities after all, not some goblins or monsters. However, if you know you are entering a politically difficult environment, do consider in advance the tipping points and danger signals. If things go over those thresholds, please do consider leaving the field early. There are other creative means to carry on research. It’s not a shame to care about the safety of yourself and others.
How did your research change due to the crisis? Did core questions change?
When local conflicts broke out, I became unable to do my own research because everyone was concerned with the crisis. It’s like COVID-19, where everyone can’t think of anything else besides the pandemic. I spent most of the time simply trying to follow what’s going on. Media censorship meant that media isn’t that trustworthy; I had to rely on gossip and other backchannels. Fieldworkers are professional gossipers in a sense, you go around and listen to as many people as possible. Because of this position, I was being increasingly drawn into the developing situation for the interlocutors. I noticed how the things I said had an afterlife in peculiar ways. I knew multiple people directly involved in the crisis. Because it’s a relatively fragmented, urban environment, everyone was trying to navigate the situation on their own. Since I was moving between the different people and communities, I ended up carrying stories between them. Things like “this person did this to deal with the problem,” and so on. But that made me nervous—I was aware of the limitations of my citizenship status and knowledge of the situation even as the weight of my words increased for my interlocutors.
Once you feel the weight of your words, your fieldwork really does change. Status as a foreigner really came to matter—some people wanted me to participate in some actions, but I couldn’t go because of the risks of having a foreigner present. I was always sensitive to the political risks, but it was also really hard to assess and judge. Some said I was too courageous. Others thought I was worrying too much. I regretted not thinking these scenarios out in advance; in many situations, I had to make split second judgments.
Under that crisis situation, it was no longer up to me to decide what I wanted to do. The situation and environment was dictating what I could do and learn about. Preparation would have helped. Some people undertake research to meet the crisis and enter these sorts of situations, but I didn’t intend to enter this kind of situation and my project wasn’t designed with this kind of crisis in mind. In a sense, these effects are not so different from the Covid pandemic’s effects on other’s fieldwork.
Are there ethical concerns that emerged alongside the crisis?
In previous writing with some public life, I hadn’t completely anonymized the names of the areas that I worked in. If I started writing about the crisis, even if I anonymize now, those documents might still link back to the people I was working with. You might have to track all your previous writings and their public lives, but it’s not always easy. I’m trying to write in such a way where the crisis isn’t occupying all of my work, but it impacted the research and I have to be careful to anonymize whenever I discuss it.
Due to the situation, my own role changed in the field. I didn’t look like a foreigner, but my foreign status mattered a ton, but in different ways before and after the situation. My foreign affiliations came to matter from time to time. I had the linguistic tools and contacts to get in touch with foreign correspondents and other foreigners. Therefore, some people wanted me to be more active in reaching out to foreign correspondents to help them, but I also knew that there were a lot of cases where getting foreign media involved didn’t work out well for the people on the ground. I dealt with the burden of wondering if I could play a more active role in the resistance balanced against the harm it could cause.
You don’t want to make the stories and people you work with part of larger narratives which might ultimately hurt the people you care about. For China scholars, this is especially tricky given the current political environment that tends to boil down everything into anti versus pro-China camps. Still not sure of the right answer. I didn’t want to occupy the role of savior, and I also wondered if I was just “extracting stories” to take away. A lot of these ethical concerns were already present—things I thought about beforehand—but they didn’t manifest in the same way until a crisis comes. All of a sudden, you have to make decisions with unknown consequences. Ethical concerns end up guiding you in these situations and not necessarily the research questions anymore.
How do you handle being away from the country? Are there fears about not being able to re-enter?
In my situation, it’s immensely difficult to learn about what’s happening on the ground because media is being censored and I’m far away from it all now. Social media is actively censored, so you have to practice caution when communicating online. In particular, a lot of people left the area because of the crisis and that makes it difficult to maintain relationships with.
And of course, the banal things: if I write something, does that make it difficult to return?
(Interviewer: You say that’s banal, but it seems huge! How do you navigate that?) – This isn’t the only way, but it’s the strategy I’ve taken—I practice as much caution as possible. Even if you feel it might be fine to insert a place name to add some context, anonymize as much as possible anyways. Situations can change quickly—pictures, videos, and written records of events might be fine at first, but a shift of policy can make them dangerous to have out in the public very quickly.
Additional Resources-Selected by the Interviewer
Monique Marks & Julten Abdelhalim (2018) Introduction: identity, jeopardy and moral dilemmas in conducting research in ‘risky’ environments, Contemporary Social Science, 13:3-4, 305-322, DOI: 10.1080/21582041.2017.1388463
This piece introduces a special journal edition on the moral dilemmas of doing ethnographic field work in “risky” situations. The edition takes into account perspectives of scholars that come from Global South positionalities working in high risk situations around the world.