Tag Archives Research

EADI ISS Conference 2021 | Risk dumping in field research: some researchers are safer than others

EADI ISS Conference 2021 | Risk dumping in field research: some researchers are safer than others

Researchers who conduct their fieldwork in unfamiliar or hazardous settings are routinely exposed to risks that can bring them harm if these are not anticipated and circumvented. Often, junior PhDs ...

Positioning Academia | Let’s talk about it: embedding research communication in transformative research

Positioning Academia | Let’s talk about it: embedding research communication in transformative research

Discussions on the transformative potential of research have focused little on how research is communicated once it has been conducted and, indeed, while it is conducted. Instead, the focus hitherto ...

Disasters, Dilemmas and Decisions: Notes from a monsoon fieldwork in Assam, India

Taking an ethnographic route to study disaster-affected communities makes us grow deeply aware of seething worldly inequalities that disasters bring forth. At the same time, it makes us compassionate towards the world outside. It is imperative we reserve a piece of that compassion for our own selves, too, writes Mausumi Chetia.

On a summer night eleven monsoons ago, sleep evaded me. Outside, the winds were growing stronger by the hour and the rain refused to stop pouring. My sleepless thoughts held the image of a family and an incessantly shaking, Kare Okum (chang-ghar in Assamese) or stilt houses built over a flowing channel of water. I was in Majuli, a densely populated island in the Brahmaputra river of Assam, my home state in northeast India. I was collecting data for my Master’s dissertation around the time the monsoons began, bringing the annual floods to our state.

A few days later, my then research supervisor pulled me out of the field site. With a calm, but commanding voice, she asked me to return to ‘safety’ at the earliest. With partially collected data, mixed emotions and a river that was continuously expanding (due to massive erosion of its banks), I left Majuli for my home’s ‘safety’.

Fast forward to fieldwork for my current research in Assam in 2019. I was faced once again with the ethical dilemma of applying a methodological approach focusing on people first and foremost vs prioritising my own safety as a researcher. They were the very puzzles I had left behind in Majuli when I left a decade ago. Research is a deeply political process, but it is a humanising journey, too, as I would come to see (and as Kikon 2019 explains).

The half-written story of a monsoon auto ride: taking a submerged path

My fieldwork in June 2019 took me to one of Assam’s severely flood-prone districts. The geographical location was chosen based on longstanding professional relationships and empirical familiarity with that region.

Map of Assam
Figure 1: Map of Assam, India

A local humanitarian organisation aided me in accessing the research site. I found an accommodation in the district town, about 45 kilometres away from the actual site of study. My research populations lived about 15 to 25 kilometres away from a national highway, on a rehabilitated government-owned piece of land situated along the banks of a river.

The initial fieldwork days were about establishing access and meeting key contacts. The weather was mostly cloudy with occasional showers. One day looked particularly promising, with the sun high up in a clear, blue morning sky. Predictably, the sky got dark in no time. Despite warnings of rising water levels, our auto-rickshaw driver decided to risk continuing the trip. Then the drizzling started.

I could see a blurring silver line across the trees. It was the water. My heart skipped a beat as I remembered the last time I was in a heavily flooded river in a steamer boat, almost two monsoons past. Some thatched houses appeared inundated already. Buffaloes and cows were clutching at tiny islands that had formed in the paddy fields, which in turn resembled huge lakes on either side of the road.

Stranded animals Assam
Figure 2: Stranded animals on islands of submerged paddy fields (photograph taken by the author, July 10th, 2019).

Gradually, it felt like we were surrounded by a sea of water. There came a point where the road ahead looked completely submerged. Our auto-rickshaw came to a halt. A few vehicles had stopped ahead of us. The rain continued pouring. There was chaos and confusion. People needed to cross the submerged part of the road to reach their homes. But the prospect of crossing the waist-deep water with their luggage, infants and children delayed their decision. Three of my fellow passengers told me that they were indeed afraid of the water. Nonetheless, they had to cross it on foot. Devoid of alternatives, two women and a teenaged boy started marching ahead. Many, like them, were from villages as far ahead as 15 kilometres.

An ethical-methodological dilemma

I continued standing there next to our auto-rickshaw, almost in a stupor. A billion thoughts crossed my mind. And here was my dilemma. By design, understanding the ‘everydayness’ of the research population was at the heart of my research methodology. By that virtue, even the present situation of crossing a flooded area should theoretically have been something I would have had to prepare for. However, faced with the disaster first-hand, I was anything but prepared to encounter the ‘lived experiences’ of my research population. I found myself debating whether loyalty to my research methodology was more crucial than my personal safety or, more importantly, whether being an empathetic researcher and registering the real difficulties faced by the research population, in hosting me in their flooded homes, was the most important objective.

The first thing that was stopping me from stepping into the waters was not the fear of the water itself. We were witnessing people crossing the submerged road. And in all fairness, it was not an ‘alarming flood situation’ by any measure, while perhaps only moving towards that. My concern was one of return: my rapport with these families had not matured adequately to a point that I could stay unannounced in my interviewees’ homes. At the same time, if the rains continued (which was most likely), it would have been risky to return. The families were already struggling with minimal living spaces. Basic amenities like food, drinking water, public transport access, markets, hospitals, etc. were already limited and at far-off distances. With rising waters, it would be inappropriate to obligate them to accommodate an additional person, that person being myself.

I was tiptoeing ahead absent-mindedly with all these thoughts in my head when my auto-rickshaw driver called out, asking me to return to the vehicle. Along with a few passengers, he was planning to return to the main highway. He insisted that I must, too, as I looked like an ‘outsider’ and I wouldn’t be able to cross the road like the ‘locals’. With a sense of self-betrayal, I shut my umbrella and got back to the vehicle.

The next morning, we were informed that the entire road till the bank of the river (located at least 15 kms from where we had returned) had been submerged. Even steamer services to Majuli were shut down indefinitely. I realised my return to meet the families would have to wait. This reflected my limited role as an ethnographic researcher – to study the research population during disasters that very much defined the everydayness of their lives.

The ethnographic project is in itself embedded within power relations between the researcher and the researched (Behar, 1993: 31 cited in Prasad, 1998). Empirically speaking, the research population and I share our homeland (of Assam), culture and language, both literally and figuratively, to a considerable extent. Yet we are anything but parallel in the legitimacies of our respective lives. To begin with, for instance, my family or I have never encountered a disaster first-hand. Concurrently, in my research, it is I who determine the design, selection of site, population for study and methodology. This essentially puts me in a position of power and privilege over the research population I study who, in contrast, had no choice in choosing my research through which to share their everyday lives.

Given this inequality, the power (of the researcher) could end up being wielded against the best interests of the researched in ethnographic studies during or after disasters. The delicate balance between prioritising the research methodology and prioritising the research population then becomes crucial for us as disaster researchers. The power divide and our mandate to negotiate these nuances becomes much more apparent during our fieldwork. Critical reflection (Foley and Valenzuela 2005) at this juncture might prove to be a useful exercise.

My fieldwork experience has underlined that remaining empathetic and putting the interests of the research population facing disasters before our own research methodology is fundamental. The classic ethnographic training for young researchers is to become ‘one among them’ (the research population), given all other factors are in place. Thus, from the start, there silently remains a distinction between ‘them and us’. However, coming from the wider socio-cultural horizon of the researched, local researchers like myself must be trusting of one’s own understanding of issues and instincts for making decisions in the field, even if such decisions do not necessarily fit within the our methodological approaches that have been argued to be rooted in western thoughts. Engaging in other aspects of fieldwork then, for instance making contacts with local experts, especially with researchers based and working in the field site for sustained periods, could be fruitful.

Growing together with our research: prioritising researchers’ self-care

More than a year has passed since the field experience elaborated above. Since returning to safety that day, I keep wondering if the decision was methodologically ethical. My choice that morning reflects the power imbalance between the researcher and the researched very clearly. I call it a power imbalance because I had the choice to not move ahead to meet the research population, whereas they themselves had no choice to leave their flooded home and return on a sunnier, drier day. That is their life. These families continue living in similar conditions of high risk and vulnerability, even today.

Auto Rickshaw in monsoon in Assam
Figure 3: Our auto-rickshaw returning towards the highway (photograph taken by the author, July 10th, 2019).

I made my choice balancing the palpable risks of entering a flooded area and as an ostensibly empathetic researcher. That being said, it was also because I prioritised the safety of the self. Many of our decisions as disaster researchers get shaped by our relationship of accountability to our host organisations (if any) and towards our own families and loved ones. Ensuring our own safety is one such challenging decision.

From the dilemmas of my ethnographic fieldwork, I learnt to appreciate that our research is as much about us as human beings/researchers as they are about understanding research populations. As I examine their lives and they examine mine, we grow together. After all, ours is a social and not a controlled laboratory situation. What I seek to reiterate here is this: many aspects of fieldwork are beyond our control. What is in our capacity, however, is to take care of our own research, the research population we engage with and our own selves.

By self-care, I refer to not just the physical and mental/emotional health safety. Beyond such strictly defined medical aspects of health, I emphasise being self-empathetic throughout the period of research while referring to a researcher’s self-care. This is especially true if we engage with disaster-affected populations over long periods. Having and practising contingency plans for safety prior to the fieldwork and regular communication with supervisory teams and our support system is a must for disaster ethnographic researchers. That being said, a researcher’s self-care must be held dearly by none other than the researcher herself.

Traversing the ethnographic road to meet disaster-affected populations

Upon my return from the flooded area, I found that colleagues at my host organisation had been worried about me, as had been my friends and family. I am glad I retraced my steps, albeit guiltily. In hindsight, I question whether I should have changed my methodology considerably for smoother sailing or perhaps should have conducted fieldwork in areas with minimal probability for a disaster. In that case, how true would I remain to my research question and how ethical would that be? My original fieldnote from that day reads,

… this sight (of the flooded paddy fields all around me) is making me question whether my original study population is even living in the same place where I’d met them, or have they already had to move to avoid the rising river? What, then, does it reflect about the (mobile) lives that these (displaced?) families lead and about the credibility of the gaze I want/need to have for this research?

(‘Reflections’ – Fieldnotes of a missed interview, July 10th, 2019)

Such reflexivity helped me reshape aspects of my fieldwork’s methodology in tune with the dynamic external environment. Physical safety and mental health of aid workers are integral to the everyday conversations of the world of humanitarian aid. While discussing reflexivity in her auto-ethnography with disaster-affected communities of Aceh, Indonesia, Rosaria Indah (2018) shares that secondary traumatic stress (STS) could be one of the long-lasting impacts on disaster ethnographers. Thus, this conversation deserves to pick pace within the academic community too, especially for researchers engaging in long-term humanitarian contexts.

Taking an ethnographic road to disaster-affected communities makes us grow deeply aware of seething worldly inequalities that disasters bring forth. At the same time, it makes us compassionate towards the world outside. It is imperative we reserve a piece of that compassion for our own selves too.

This is an edited version of the article that was originally published on the LSE blog.

References

Foley, S. and Valenzuela, A. (2005) Critical ethnography: the politics of collaboration. In: N. Denzin and Y. Lincoln, eds. The Sage handbook of qualitative research. 3rd edn. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, pp. 217–234.

Indah, R. (2018) Probing problems: Dilemmas of conducting an ethnographic study in a disaster-affected area. International journal of disaster risk reduction 31, pp.799-805.

Kikon, D. (2019) On methodology: research and fieldwork in Northeast India. The Highlander 1(1), pp. 37–40

Prasad, P. (1998) When the Ethnographic Subject Speaks Back: Reviewing Ruth Behar’s. Translated Woman. Journal of Management Inquiry 7(1), pp. 31-36.

Mausumi ChetiaAbout the author:

Mausumi Chetia is a PhD researcher with the ISS. Prior to joining academics, she was working as a development and humanitarian aid professional in India.

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Fighting racism and decolonizing humanitarian studies: toward mindful scholarship

Fighting racism and decolonizing humanitarian studies: toward mindful scholarship

Addressing racism and decolonizing humanitarian studies is urgent, and as scholars we need to step up our efforts. Partnerships between scholars and conflict-affected communities are as unequal as ever, and ...

‘I cannot understand your question’: challenges and opportunities of including persons with disabilities in participatory evaluation

‘I cannot understand your question’: challenges and opportunities of including persons with disabilities in participatory evaluation

Participatory evaluation has been praised for engaging vulnerable groups such as persons with disabilities (PwD). However, the inclusion of this group can be challenging and even self-defeating if carried out ...

COVID-19 | Remote research in times of COVID-19: considerations, techniques, and risks by Rodrigo Mena and Dorothea Hilhorst

The current COVID-19 pandemic is preventing many scholars and students, especially those in the social sciences, from visiting identified research sites and interacting with the groups or actors important for their research. Many researchers now plan to shift to forms of remote research where data are gathered without meeting research participants in person. While COVID-19 compels this trend, even before the pandemic scholars have had to conduct remote research when fieldwork is considered risky or difficult, for example in high-conflict or remote contexts. Our research of the interaction of disasters and conflict in Afghanistan and Yemen shows what to keep in mind when conducting remote research.


Remote research refers to research where the principal researcher is not engaging in face-to-face data gathering processes ‘on the ground’. This means that other people can gather data on behalf of the researcher in research locations, or that interviews with research participants are conducted by phone or using the Internet. Whereas quantitative research often uses enumerators to survey, qualitative research usually relies on face-to-face interviews or focus-group discussions that now need to be organized and conducted from a distance. Research shows that it is indeed possible to talk to participants using interfaces like telephones or social media platforms and to obtain rich and qualitative data through these, mostly internet-based, forms of communication[1]. However, the use of technology also needs to be approached with caution and in a reflective manner, as discussed in another blog.

Fundamentals and ethics for sound research still apply

No matter how hard one tries, remote research creates additional challenges, and some research questions beg so much nuance and depth that they better not be considered in remote research. Data gathered by means of remote research is also difficult to triangulate and validate, as a multitude of data sources not considered at the onset of the data collection process may present themselves in the field. Researchers may also come closer to understanding complex dynamics when immersed in the communities they are studying. Otherwise, many other routes can be explored to validate data. Think newspaper articles, GIS or satellite images, secondary sources, consulting other researchers familiar with the area, among others.

Research ethics can also be complicated when research is conducted remotely. Whether data are collected through video-based conversations or by using a third person to conduct the interview, it is important to consider whether informed consent genuinely has been obtained and how confidentiality can be guaranteed. In case of sensitive issues, face-to-face interaction allows one to read participants’ body language to detect whether the interview creates discomfort. It also allows researchers to build a trust relationship with research participants. How can researchers make sure that enough checks and balances support remote interviewing processes to avoid interviews creating anxiety or discomfort?

Finally, we need to think about how to convey the message that the research is in the interest of the research participants. Without the engagement and personal attention of a real encounter, will participants feel that they benefit from the research? Researchers often seek to ‘leave something behind’—stories, information, advice, or perhaps volunteer work for a community or NGO—to ‘give back’ to the research participants. Remote research requires questioning ways in which to move beyond the mere extraction of information that so clearly signals the asymmetric power relations between researchers and researched actors.

Some do’s and don’ts

When these complicated questions have been addressed, the question remains how to do remote research. Here are some pointers that we developed out of our experiences of researching the interaction of disasters and high-intensity conflict in Afghanistan and Yemen:

  • Some research questions cannot be addressed remotely, hence, the research design and questions needed to be adapted for remote research.
  • Ethical board approval is just as important for remote research as it is for fieldwork and cannot be skipped.
  • In order to enrich and triangulate findings, we need to be innovative. For our research, interviews were also conducted with people that recently migrated from the areas of interest to a place where they could be reached physically. Similarly, aid workers active in the area were interviewed during stop-overs at airports.
  • In order to create a broad and in-depth range of data, a multiplicity of methods besides interviews were used. These included digital surveys, the analysis of photographs taken by the participant and voice messages from participants describing places and situations, and many other creative options.
  • To remotely understand the context, relevant news, and everyday life in research areas, talking to people who know the area and reading the news about those places were key. This information allowed for better interviews and better data analysis.
  • Just like in normal interviews, body language is important for creating trust and diminishing anxiety. Sitting too close to your camera can make your presence intimidating, whereas keeping some distance and not filling the screen allows the participants to see your hand movements and background. Participants will see everything, also when you stop being attentive because you want to check some information on your phone, for example. It is therefore important to be mindful of your actions and to try to remain focused and engaged.
  • Rules for asking questions, such as using active language, asking questions one by one, trying to phrase questions and reword them in understandable language, apply even more in remote research.

Remote research is possible, but as students and researchers have to adapt to remote research, so do universities, research institutions, supervisors, and donors. Budget lines for travel may be reduced, but it may be important to provide funds for better computers, webcams, and video-based solutions.

Remote research can also be seen as an opportunity to do research differently, especially in an era where the need for travel must constantly be weighed up against the harm of adding to emissions related to climate change. We can now think of expanding the geographies of our research and reaching people in regions and places that were not considered possible before. For many students and researchers with limited budgets, it also can be a means to reduce the costs of research. However, as mentioned before, all these benefits and the use of remote research need to be weighed against adverse risks.

Which other relevant considerations would you like to share? Please feel free to leave a comment with tips, tricks or concerns.


[1] Bolt N and Tulathimutte T (2016) Remote Research. Rosenfeld Media. Available from: http://rosenfeldmedia.com/books/remote-research/#faq (accessed 1 November 2016). No page.

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Read all articles of this series here.


About the authors:

R. Mena (2019)Rodrigo (Rod) Mena is a socio-environmental researcher and AiO-PhD at the International Institute of Social Studies of the Erasmus University Rotterdam. His current research project focuses on disaster response and humanitarian aid governance in places affected by high-intensity conflict, with South Sudan, Afghanistan and Yemen as main cases. He has experience conducting fieldwork and researching in conflict and disaster zones from in Africa, Latin America, Europe, Oceania and Asia. Twitter: @romenaf

Foto kleiner formaatDorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. She is a regular author for Bliss. Read all her posts here.

 

COVID-19 | “Stay safe” conversations that illuminate the glass walls between her and me by Mausumi Chetia

COVID-19 | “Stay safe” conversations that illuminate the glass walls between her and me by Mausumi Chetia

Disasters are lived in different ways by different classes of people. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the differential impacts of disasters lie in the blurred spaces between populations fortunate enough to ...

Fighting Climate Change: Is Academia Doing Enough? by Fleur Zantvoort

Fighting Climate Change: Is Academia Doing Enough? by Fleur Zantvoort

Sometimes our research takes us to unexpected places. I spent the last weeks gluing my friends to fossil fuel corporations, getting lifted up and “bureaucratically displaced” by riot police, and ...

Creative Development | Migration and musical mobilities in Sudan and Laos by Roy Huijsmans, Katarzyna Grabska and Cathy Wilcock

How are belonging, citizenship, and rights contested through creative practices such as music and dance? What role do the creative industry, international cultural institutions, and the mobilities of performing artists play in this? And what is the significance of all this for rethinking development in post-conflict settings such as Sudan and Laos? This article briefly reflects on these questions that are driving a new ISS-funded research project.


Researching development through creative practice

A new research project led by ISS researchers Katarzyna Grabska, Roy Huijsmans, and Cathy Wilcock called Creative Development: Migration and musical mobilities in Sudan and Laos seeks to investigate the intersection of migration and creative practice. The project commences in 2019 and involves qualitative, arts-based and ethnographic field research in France, Laos, Sudan, and the UK. This research will contribute to an emerging body of work studying the relations between arts, popular culture, migration, and development.

In development studies, there is some recognition of the role of popular culture in development practice, perhaps most noticeable in research on the phenomenon of ‘celebrities’ as goodwill ambassadors (e.g. David Beckham, Shakira, Angelina Jolie). In migration and refugee studies, the engagement with the arts has been more profound and has gone beyond a focus on the rich and famous, also breaking with a western-centric view of development.

A good example is the collaborative project led by Dave Lumenta at Universitas Indonesia. The project is entitled ‘Performing out of Limbo’. It is a musical/research collaboration between Oromo refugee youth from Ethiopia and musicians, students and academics from Indonesia (see a short YouTube clip here, and a write up here).

Music and dance as acts of citizenship

The project’s conceptualisation of citizenship and belonging draws on the work of Engin Isin. In the social sciences, citizenship is mostly treated as a ‘status’. In their 2008, book ‘Acts of Citizenship, Isin and Neilsen depart from such a view and approach citizenship as an act. Such a conceptualisation of citizenship enables us to rethink ‘who’ can be a citizen based on ‘collective and individual deeds that rupture socio-historical patterns’ (p13).

This approach enables viewing music and dance performances as acts of citizenship, as explored by Aoileann Ní Mhurchú in her article ‘Unfamiliar Acts of Citizenship’. Here she engages with the experiences of young migrants in Ireland and their engagement with hip hop and vernacular languages. Their practices do not fit into conventional categories of belonging based on language use, ethnicity, or nationality, and are better described as processes facilitating ‘creative hybrid refashioning of self’ (p163) through which political identities and relations of belonging are renegotiated. Although these songs, like much hip hop, come with a message, the focus on processes and effects lead us to go beyond a discursive analysis of the lyrics to ask what senses of belonging those involved in these musical practices realised through them.

Creative development and contested acts of national belonging in Laos and Sudan

This research project will build on the work of Ní Mhurchú and others through examining music and dance as acts of citizenship in post-conflict settings. With recent histories of violent internal conflict, followed by regime change Laos and Sudan offer fertile terrain for studying acts of citizenship in and through (re)emerging creative practices.

In both Laos and Sudan, questions of national belonging are delicate matters. Expressions of citizenship are not only regulated through legal practices, but also actively promoted through national education curricula and state-censored media. This indicates that citizenship in these contexts is much more than a matter of status, but also a matter of conduct, and one that comes with a strong national(ist) morality. From such a perspective, it is not difficult to see why a music video by the popular Thai national country singer Lumyai shot in the Lao tourist site of Vang Vieng stirred debate in Laos. Although the lyrics hardly refer to national belonging, other elements of the clip do. The music video is shot in a famous rural Lao location, and in her dance moves Lumyai weaves together elements from the traditional Lam Fong dance with sexually provocative moves. As such, Lumyai transgressed norms about proper (gendered) conduct on Lao soil.

Emplacement and movement in creative development

Due to recent histories of violent conflict, there are significant Lao and Sudanese diaspora, and the diaspora play an active role in the creative scene. Migration, like popular culture, is a transnational phenomenon. Moreover, culture is also transnationalised through international cultural institutions. This is evident from the work of the Institut Français in Laos and in Sudan and the Goethe Institute in Sudan. Culture has always flown, but this is particularly true in the present-day social media landscape. In addition, diaspora networks and international cultural institutions also facilitate the movement of artists and creative development. At the same time, dance and citizenship become acts of citizenship when they are emplaced—that is, when these creative expressions become meaningful in relation to more territorialised relations of belonging. Hence, the research project will pay close attention to the dynamics of mobilities and placemaking in the manifestations of creative development under study. Stay tuned!


On 5 February 2019, the ISS will host a workshop on ‘Moving methods: creative approaches to experiences of displacement, migration, social justice and belonging’.


Color 2 Roy HuijsmansRoy Huijsmans is a teacher/researcher at the ISS.

 

 

 

 

 

Kasia Grabska_

Katarzyna (Kasia) Grabska is a lecturer/researcher at the ISS and a filmmaker.’

 

 

 

CW bw

 

Cathy Wilcock is a postdoctoral researcher at the ISS, with a background in critical development studies. In her role at ISS, she is continuing her work on political belonging in the context of forced migration. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Changing the lexicons in war-to-peace transitions by Eric Gutierrez

Changing the lexicons in war-to-peace transitions by Eric Gutierrez

Social researchers at times apply certain terms without critically reflecting on their use. For example, the word ‘humanitarian’ is used to refer to specific crises, while responses to such crises ...

Are you oversimplifying? Research dilemmas, honesty and epistemological reductionism by Rodrigo Mena

Are you oversimplifying? Research dilemmas, honesty and epistemological reductionism by Rodrigo Mena

During a recent field trip to South Sudan, a question haunted me: How can I tell the story of this place accurately without reducing in my research the lived experiences ...

What determines societal relevance? by Roy Huijsmans and Elyse Mills

An external committee found that the ISS’s research is highly societally relevant, but what does that really mean, and what determines it? Here four broad questions guide us toward a better understanding of societal relevance and impact to contribute toward an ongoing conversation on the topic within the ISS community. We find that the complexity and contingencies of societal relevance in relation to research must be appreciated before attempting to develop a methodological framework for measuring it.


In 2017, the ISS’s efforts to make its research societally relevant were assessed as ‘excellent/world-class’ by an international peer review committee. In their final report, the committee defined societal relevance as occurring at three levels: globally (themes with an international scope); nationally (in the countries in which ISS researchers are doing their work); and locally in Dutch society (where ISS is increasingly providing comparative insights on key domestic issues).

Despite this high score, within the ISS community understandings of societal relevance and impact, and its importance in current and future ISS research is not so easily delineated. This blog post aims to present a number of different takes on the question of societal relevance and impact with the aim of stimulating debate on the topic as the ISS seeks develop a stronger methodological framework to assess whether ISS research is indeed societally relevant per one of the recommendations of the abovementioned committee.

The very nature of social science research is to engage with questions about the social. This means that social science research is well-placed to respond to matters relevant to society. Yet this is not to say that all social science research is by definition societally relevant, or should be. Rather, it is perhaps the task of social scientists to think through what it means to claim that research is societally relevant or has a societal impact especially in times in which research is increasingly evaluated in such terms. In this post we put forward four broad questions around how one might understand societal relevance and impact.

 Societal relevance or societal impact?

First, what is the difference between societal relevance and impact? Do they always go hand-in-hand, or can research be societally relevant without making an impact, and vice versa? These two terms are often used interchangeably, but can have very different contextual connotations. While relevance refers to ‘the quality or state of being closely connected or appropriate,’ to make an impact means to have a ‘noticeable effect or influence’. For example, the review committee considers ISS research to be societally relevant because of the topics it addresses, how it is used by others, and how it contributes to more inclusive and equitable ways of knowing. As a result of its relevance, they believe the societal impact of the research will be broader and more sustainable. But could a particular piece of research address a burning issue in today’s society, such as immigration, without having any impact on real-life processes, such as ways of managing immigration? And if so, does this mean this piece of research is less relevant?

Is societal relevance time/space-specific?

Second, is what is deemed societally relevant time and context-specific, and therefore subject to change? This means that rather than research being societally relevant while it is being done, it can become societally relevant (in both expected and unexpected ways) after the fact. Consider the hypothetical example of having a specialist at ISS who is researching Northern Thai caves. Her/his research would probably have been entirely absent from any ISS inventory on societally relevant research up until July 2018 when such research, regardless of its academic quality, would have become highly popular among all sorts of societal actors in the context of the rescue operation of the young football players in Tham Luang Nang Non. Even if this research only receives a flood of readers for a few weeks, can it still be considered relevant?

Societal relevance to whom, when, and why?

Third, in which societies – which are unequal, conflicted, and full of contradictions – or segments of society, is/should our research be (most) relevant, and why does this matter? This can be illustrated by Oscar Salemink’s historical work on the relations between ethnographic representations of Vietnam’s Central Highlanders and the shifts in historical context in which such research was produced and consumed. Salemink refers to the work of the French anthropologist Georges Condominas, whom Salemink describes as ‘developing into a critic of colonialism’, when his 1957 publication Nous avons mangé la forêt came out. In 1962, the US government illegally translated this French language publication into English and distributed it to their Special Forces active in what is known in Vietnam as the American War. This example shows that the relevance of social science research may well be understood and acted upon very differently between those producing and those consuming research. Similarly, various actors differ significantly in their capacities and interest in making research relevant to certain societal interests rather than others.

What is a scholar-activist approach to societal relevance?

Fourth, how does an engaged or scholar-activist approach to research understand and interact with societal relevance? As a social science methodology, this approach has received both increasing recognition and critique in recent years due to its interest in blending social and political commitments with scholarly research. Charles Hale (2006) notes that this approach stems from ‘rebellion against the complete “academicization” of social science’ and demands for more research relevance that emerged in the 1960s. This relevance is not just about reaching a broader public, but about heeding calls to do social science in a way that engages more with non-social scientists. He defines activist research as an approach that attempts to embrace a dual loyalty to both critical scholarly spaces, and to struggles occurring outside of academia. These dual commitments transform research methods from the very beginning of a project to the end.

David Mosse’s (2004) conceptualisation of the relation between development policy and development practice further complicates how we go about claiming societal relevance in development research. In contrast to linear models of theories of change typically propagated by development organisations, Mosse asks ‘what if…practices produce policy, in the sense that actors in development devote their energies to maintaining coherent representations regardless of events’. When ISS researchers act on calls from the development industry to provide ‘capacity building’, training, conduct commissioned research, give lectures, or sit on their advisory board, this is counted as evidence of ‘societal relevance’ in our current accounting system. Mosse’s claim pushes us to think yet one step further by reflecting on whether such activities go beyond merely contributing to the legitimacy of the organisations and its practices.

A framework for assessing whether ISS research is indeed societally relevant, requires mapping out how we understand this notion in the first place. It also requires accepting that any answer will be historically and contextually contingent, and that whether and how social science research is made relevant, and to what end, is something that researchers, at best, only have limited control over.


Image Credit: Illustration by Lorenzo Petrantoni


About the authors:

emills

 

Elyse Mills is a PhD researcher in the Political Ecology Research Group at the ISS, and co-coordinates the Emancipatory Rural Politics Initiative (ERPI) secretariat.

 

 

Color 2 Roy Huijsmans

Roy Huijsmans is a teacher/researcher at the ISS.

 

ISS hosts 16th Development Dialogue for early-stage researchers

ISS hosts 16th Development Dialogue for early-stage researchers

The Development Dialogue, an annual event organized by and for PhD researchers, this year welcomes over 80 participants. The conference theme is “Social Justice amidst the Convergence of Crises: Repoliticitzing ...

Celebrating a year of blissful blogging: ISS Blog Bliss turns 1!

Celebrating a year of blissful blogging: ISS Blog Bliss turns 1!

Bliss, the blog of the ISS on global development and social justice, turns one this week. Although the blog is still in its infancy, it is already showing great promise. ...

Economic diplomacy: bilateral relations in a context of geopolitical change by Peter A.G. Bergeijk and Selwyn J.V. Moons

Economic diplomacy, although perceived as marginally important by neoclassical economists, is a highly relevant topic first and foremost because it works in practice, but also because it provides an essential policy answer to the increasing uncertainty of international transactions. In this article, Peter A.G. van Bergeijk and Selwyn J.V. Moons, editors of the recently released Research Handbook on Economic Diplomacy, briefly introduce the topic of economic diplomacy and highlight the value of the new publication, to which several ISS researchers have contributed.


The eminent breakdown of multilateralism and supranationalism due to Trump and Brexit has led to a revival of the debate on economic diplomacy, properly understood as a broad field that comprises those aspects of diplomacy that are aimed at:

  • the opening of markets to stimulate bilateral cross-border economic activities such as imports, exports, mergers and acquisitions and greenfield foreign direct investments;
  • the building and use of bilateral cultural, political and economic relationships between countries in order to assist domestic companies; and
  • the use of bilateral economic relationships, including (the threat) to discontinue these activities, as a tool of diplomacy.

Neoclassically oriented economists in the past have considered this topic of marginal interest only. Their analysis typically heralds the costs of government intervention and the benefits of free international trade and investment flows. Consequently, the economic analysis of positive and negative diplomatic interactions did not feature prominently on their research agenda. But it is increasingly being recognised that economic diplomacy is  a highly relevant topic, especially in Development Studies, (a) because economic diplomacy works (Moons 2017, 2018, Muniz 2018), (b) because it is more important for developing countries and emerging markets (Rhana 2018) and (c) because it provides an essential policy answer to the increasing uncertainty of international transactions (Bergeijk and Moons 2018).

Surprise and confusion

The international economic reality of 2018 is surprising and confusing. Europe struggles with its trans-Atlantic ally, and the UK’s exit and a new Italian government with an anti-EU attitude contribute to this sense of confusion. America is separating itself from its traditional partners (the EU, NAFTA, and the OECD). The trade relationships between the world’s economic #1 and #2 are more strained than ever before. Trust in the multilateral backbone of the world economy evaporates and US hegemonism is weakening. Clearly a new and better understanding of the interactions between governments is necessary because of the changing playing field and dynamics.

Brave new world

Four key stylized facts that apply to this new environment make the Research Handbook on Economic Diplomacy: Bilateral relations in a context of geopolitical change timely and highly relevant:

  1. In the brave new world of Trump and Brexit, trade and investment uncertainty increases significantly with a negative impact on trade and investment;
  2. Trump’s open confrontational approach to foreign policy as a form of negative diplomacy bears costs both in the US and abroad;
  3. Bilateral relationships become more relevant and valuable, especially for developing and emerging economies; and
  4. Bilateral economic diplomacy needs to be carefully designed and properly managed in order to generate optimal impact.

9781784710835Representing a move away from Eurocentric books on the topic, the Research Handbook offers relevant and focused contributions that provide three valuable lessons for current and future policies. First, in addition to the full coverage of positive interactions, our contributors also explicitly consider the impact of negative interaction. Second, the Research Handbook in addition to the analysis of OECD markets provides a comprehensive set of detailed empirical analyses of developing and emerging economies in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The contributions by 31 leading experts from industrial nations, emerging economies and developing countries in five continents provide a unique perspective on both the heterogeneous dynamics of economic diplomacy and the tools to analyse the impact and efficiency of economic diplomats both qualitatively (case studies, interviews) and quantitatively (macro-economic gravity models, micro-economic firm level data, surveys, meta-analysis, cost benefit analysis). Third, the Research Handbook provides detailed discussions of information requirements, data coverage and the impact of (changes in) the level and quality of diplomatic representation. The studies in the Research Handbook thereby reveal how and under which conditions economic diplomacy can be effective, providing clear guidance for evidence-based policy.

Evidence base

What are the major findings and implications of recent research? First, economic diplomacy works and this is true both for positive and negative interaction. One can build on positive interaction to strengthen economic ties and similarly the twitter tsunami of the current US president and his increasing reliance on economic sanctions will carry a significant cost (Rose, 2018). Second, uncertainty itself already reduces international specialisation: the threat of trade disruption and discontinuation of treaties in itself influences perceptions and thereby the behaviour of consumers, firms and governments. Third, a one-size-fits-all approach does not work. Economic diplomacy should be aimed at the niche where its contribution can be most significant: complex products, complex markets and countries with diverging political, cultural and historical background (Moons 2017).

Relevance for developing countries and emerging markets

Bilateral economic diplomacy is important for building a good country image and to promote an emerging market as a reliable trading partner with high quality export products, especially in developing countries. It is a relatively more significant determinant of bilateral exports among African states compared to regional integration (Afesorgbor 2018). New modes of economic diplomacy and (development cooperation) are being developed based on China’s pioneering approach to development (De Haan and Warmerdam 2018). Economic diplomacy, however, is not a panacea as Maharani (2018) clarifies while discussing challenges such as lacking exporter preparedness, substandard logistic infrastructure and budgets that remain below those of neighboring countries.


References:
Afesorgbor, S.K., Economic Diplomacy in Africa: The Impact of Regional Integration versus Bilateral Diplomacy on Bilateral Trade chapter 20 in Research Handbook on Economic Diplomacy: Bilateral Relations in a Context of Geopolitical Change, editors P.A.G. van Bergeijk en S.J.V. Moons, Edward Elgar: Cheltenham, UK
Bergeijk, P.A.G. van en S.J.V Moons (2018) ‘Introduction to the Research Handbook on Economic Diplomacy’, chapter 1 in Research Handbook on Economic Diplomacy: Bilateral Relations in a Context of Geopolitical Change, editors P.A.G. van Bergeijk en S.J.V. Moons, Edward Elgar: Cheltenham, UK
Bergeijk, P.A.G. van, S.J.V. Moons en C. Volpe-Martincus (2018) ‘The future of economic diplomacy research’, chapter 23 in Research Handbook on Economic Diplomacy: Bilateral Relations in a Context of Geopolitical Change, editors P.A.G. van Bergeijk en S.J.V. Moons, Edward Elgar: Cheltenham, UK
Arjan de Haan and Ward Warmerdam China’s foreign aid: towards a new normal? chapter 22 in Research Handbook on Economic Diplomacy: Bilateral Relations in a Context of Geopolitical Change, editors P.A.G. van Bergeijk en S.J.V. Moons, Edward Elgar: Cheltenham, UK
Moons, S.J.V (2017) Heterogenous Effects of Economic Diplomacy: Instruments, Determinants and Developments. PhD thesis ISS.

pag van bergeijkAbout the authors: 

Peter van Bergeijk (www.petervanbergeijk.org) is Professor of International Economics and Macroeconomics at the ISS.

DJ_20170714_0642Selwyn Moons has a PhD in economics from ISS. His research focus is international economics and economic diplomacy. Selwyn is currently working as Partner in the public sector advisory branch of PwC the Netherlands. Previously he worked in the Dutch ministries of Economic Affairs and Foreign Affairs.

Trump’s ‘doublespeak’—why academics should speak out by Jeff Handmaker

Trump’s ‘doublespeak’—why academics should speak out by Jeff Handmaker

U.S. President Donald Trump in January 2018 delivered his first State of the Union Address (SOTU). At first glance, he sounded more presidential than ever following his tumultuous first year ...

ISS at 65: Still educating academics of high integrity? by Bas de Gaay Fortman

ISS at 65: Still educating academics of high integrity? by Bas de Gaay Fortman

About the author: As part-time professor of economic development at the Institute of Social Studies Bas de Gaay Fortman gave his Inaugural Address on ‘Rural development in an age of survival’ ...

How do we decide what we research? by Terry Cannon

T_Cannon_resAbout the author:
Terry Cannon is Research Fellow in Rural Futures, Institute of Development Studies at University of Sussex, UK.


This blog is based on the Development Research Seminar presentation by Terry Cannon, held on 10 October 2017 at the International Institute of Social Studies, during the 65th anniversary week of the Institute.

As ISS celebrates its 65th anniversary, I want to share some concerns about what we in development studies institutions are facing. Most of us might assume that we are ‘free’ to research what we want. ISS and similar institutions like my own at IDS work in what is loosely defined as development studies, and choose to research what we believe will support understanding of the issues involved. My concern is that we are increasingly deluded about our ability to make independent and self-determined choices.


Was there was once a golden age in which there was a complete lack of constraint in what we could research? No – the problem is rather a narrowing of scope, determined by changes that have happened in the last three decades in funding arrangements and institutional demands (for example the UK “Research Excellence Framework”), contractual pressures (e.g. for minimum publication outputs and external funding), and the emergence of what has been called the ‘neoliberal university’. These changes have been incremental, and have the appearance of rationality. But they are dangerous, and cumulatively they form a punitive framework in which staff are fearful for their place, their progression and survival within the system. It is also impossible for many younger colleagues to imagine that the world was ever different, or that a change to this system is even possible. Those who recognise some of the problems are forced – by the threats inherent in the system – to adopt a state of passive acceptance.

Bangladsh (140).JPG
Source: The author

When I mention the label neoliberalism, I am very aware that it is possibly misunderstood or seen as a knee-jerk, unspecific buzz word. I have little space to be more specific here, but will approximate it as an ideology that claims to be supporting free markets for the benefit of all, and yet fosters a situation in which wealth is transferred from the majority to the minority, while corporations increase their monopoly behaviour in very anti-market ways. Universities increasingly behave as corporations, competing for ‘customers’ and pushing down wages and conditions of their workforce (53% of UK academics are on casual contracts[i]), with cleaners and catering staff from outsourced companies at the ‘bottom’ of the pile on oppressive contracts and minimum wages. Meanwhile, in the UK the average salary of Vice-Chancellors (the “CEO” title of most university directors) is £274,000 a year.[ii] Universities have shifted from being institutions that support the social goals of the wider society into businesses that promote themselves. They are no longer capable of providing the role model for how society might be improved for the benefit of the majority, through ideas of equity, fairness and commentary on the excesses of governments.

What does this mean for development studies? My greatest fear is that the framework of institutional corporatism and funding models has undermined our ability to ask questions about what causes a problem. Poverty, hunger, vulnerability (to hazards or climate change) are not just ‘characteristics’ of different groups of people. But this is how they are increasingly portrayed, as with ‘lifting people out of poverty’, or ‘building resilience’. The SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) say nothing about what is causing problems of poverty, ill-health, hunger, poor water and sanitation and so on. But these problems are largely the result of processes of exploitation and oppression that must be understood and explained. In earlier times, that is exactly what development studies was doing.[iii]

Increasingly it is difficult to seek explanations for these problems: it is more awkward, and we cannot make ‘free’ choices to research them. Development studies institutions are now almost completely reliant on funding from governments and development banks. These institutions are often beneficiaries of the processes that are causing the problems, and have little desire to investigate their origins. The issues that we are ‘allowed’ to research often come ready-framed in ways that disguise the causes of the problems they supposedly address. NGOs are also sucked into this framework to ensure their funding pipeline is healthy, and have much less motivation than in the past to assess the power relationships that are involved in causing problems. This is very relevant for us in development studies, because we work a lot with international and local NGOs.

Bangladsh (87)
Source: The author

And a great deal of previous research is also largely ignored, because it is ‘awkward’: class analysis (which is a primary basis for understanding poverty and inequality) that was a significant source of explanation in the past (for example in relation to land tenure in much of Asia and Latin America) hardly gets a mention. Structural problems faced by women and girls are now dealt with through ‘female empowerment’. Donor conditionality on ‘gender’ expects development organizations to change oppressive male behaviour entrenched for centuries through projects that last just a few years. Vulnerability is addressed not by understanding what leads people to suffer from a natural hazard or climate change (processes related to class, gender, ethnicity, age and belief systems), but by focusing on technical fixes and not challenging the status quo.

In my work in Bangladesh, staff involved in adaptation or disaster risk reduction projects rarely discuss land tenure and landlessness as a cause of vulnerability. The donors and NGOs know that they cannot deal with the root causes and so engage in a game of mutual patronage to fulfil each short-term projects and then move on to the next (IFRC 2014 p.203). While these two related issues are more in the realm of NGO and DRR institutions, my argument is that development studies falls into similar traps. We are in danger of ignoring the processes within power systems that are the causes of many of the problems. When we are coerced and motivated to engage in research that comes with ready-made framings that discourage or make it difficult to identify what is causing a problem, do we become part of the problem rather than making arguments for what would be a proper solution?


[i] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/nov/16/universities-accused-of-importing-sports-direct-model-for-lecturers-pay

[ii] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/feb/23/university-vice-chancellors-average-pay-now-exceeds-275000

[iii] See my blog on the myth of community: http://vulnerabilityandpoverty.blogspot.nl/2014/04/why-do-we-pretend-there-is-community.html