Travel restrictions and social distancing practices put in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have largely ground field research to a halt. Fieldwork plays an essential but often underappreciated role in both understanding violent extremism and developing policy responses to it. It is vital, therefore, that funders and policymakers support the return of such important work in a post-pandemic world.

Students from the Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies conduct a research field visit in Sri Lanka. November 2017. (Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies/Wikimedia Commons)
Students from the Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies conduct a research field visit in Sri Lanka. November 2017. (Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies/Wikimedia Commons)

Fieldwork brings important local perspectives to the fore, helping to contextualize conflicts within their wider ecosystems and societal and cultural realities. This forces researchers to challenge their preconceptions and theoretical assumptions as they come face to face with the realities on the ground. And, perhaps most importantly, fieldwork brings to life the human dimension — the human suffering and resilience of the communities affected by violence and the motivations and drivers of the violent actors.

Without understanding the view from the ground, we will continue to struggle to understand violent extremism and develop effective policy responses. 

The Human Side

As many field researchers will admit, there is something about the smell and feel of a place that being on the ground provides and that reading reports and analyzing data cannot capture. On the ground, a researcher has the opportunity to diversify their primary sources and data. They can also better appreciate and absorb the context of the conflict. Without understanding the human side, the unique cultural and societal setting and the physical geography and climate, which together forge the contours within which the violence evolves, we can only have a partial understanding of the conflict ecosystem.

“The value of engagement with human beings cannot be underestimated,” Haroro Ingram, a senior research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University and member of the RESOLVE Research Advisory Council, told a recent RESOLVE Forum session.

Absorbing the context can help the researcher understand and interpret the collected data, but also to reinterpret what they learned from desk-based studies. The subjective experience of sharing is humbling; it offers an intellectual appreciation not only of the complexity on the ground but also of the breadth and depth of the literature and its gaps.

Researchers are only human and bring along preconceived perceptions, biases and assumptions — implicit or explicit — internalized from academic literature and media reports. Seeing the realities on the ground forces them to confront these preconceived assumptions and challenge, reinterpret or discard them. Theoretical explanations and conceptual analysis can only be tested when applied against the world they purport to explain. Field research gives us a chance to improve and develop our understanding, and a chance to glimpse the unknown unknowns, the missing factors that we cannot see or conceive from our academic ivory towers.

It is easy to overlook the human side — the victims of violence and conflict-affected communities that bear the brunt of the human tragedy of extremism — when researching a conflict from a distance. Observing and talking to the most affected communities reminds us of the horrors of war and the depths of depravity humanity can sink to. However, it also brings to light the human side of violent actors on all sides, an insight into the motivations and drivers that led them down the path to violence. Conflicts are ultimately about people; attempts to understand conflicts need to start with understanding the people that drive them. To do that, field researchers need to adopt a methodical approach, informed by the literature, and ensure their research and findings are triangulated, ethical and trustworthy.

“Mindanao, in the last 50 years, has experienced cycles of failed peace processes that international actors tried to support with a top-down understanding, often from a distance, in the absence of genuine bottom-up, grassroot perspectives,” said Ingram, who focuses his field research on the Middle East and Southeast Asia. “Since the most important actors in the grassroots population do not have electricity, let alone internet, the only effective outreach is getting to the source to build trust, engage with communities respectfully and learn of cultural subtleties through conversations. Collaborative effort, trust and the contribution to research can create actionable, nuanced and effective recommendations for policy and practice,” he added.

Contextual Understanding

Field research strengthens academic rigor, theories and methodologies, complements desk research and brings a different vantage point to understanding conflict. One constant risk in academic research is the tendency to be reductionist, and to focus on an isolated issue and miss the dynamic connections between it and its wider context. It can be appealing to zoom in on a particular violent extremist group and examine a singular aspect, such as ideology and group dynamics, rather than to see it as part of a complex ecosystem and dynamic processes. Conflict contexts often comprise multiple, interlinked armed actors, all influenced by and influencing each other. These contexts are further complicated by cross-cutting dynamics of ethnic, customary, kinship or religious dimensions.

Field research contextualizes the conflict and the issues that matter, helps understand drivers and motivations behind conflict actors and breaks free of embedded preconceptions. It can bring to life the unseen complexities: policemen fighting rebelling siblings, women fleeing insurgent cousins, parents losing children to armed groups, government officials persecuting family members as non-state actors. “People often said: ‘My brother joined that armed group, my cousin is in the police force,’” said Ingram, recalling conversations with locals in conflict areas that may seem, on the surface, to be absurd but that actually reflect a sober, clinical rational choice decision-making. Conflict ecosystems are invariably messy, counterintuitive and seemingly incomprehensible, yet remain the reality we seek to understand.

Sukanya Podder, defense studies senior lecturer at King’s College London and member of the RESOLVE Research Advisory Council, who also participated in the RESOLVE Forum session, conducted research in Mindanao, the Philippines, and Liberia where she focused on children and young people recruited into armed groups. Observing youth relationships with families and commanders in their communities, she was able to break free of preconceptions from media imagery and simplistic assumptions that children join community-based armed groups because they are drugged. Her fieldwork unearthed much more diverse motivations and choices: many children chose to join or decided to refrain of their own will.

Ethics and Safety

With any type of research, ethics and safety must be paramount. Fieldwork poses distinct challenges for each venue, context and participant. “Do no harm” should be the central principle of fieldwork planning to ensure the safety and integrity of researchers, respondents and their communities. Research fatigue is a growing issue that has negative implications on the quality of data. If respondents are wary about the benefits of research and are hesitant to participate, the authenticity of results is harder to determine. Researchers must be careful not to instrumentalize fieldwork and budget enough time and resources for in-depth quality research to produce authentic, reliable and valid data; this data should be periodically updated.

Getting approval from institutional review boards for fieldwork can often be challenging, and rightly so, but this rigor helps researchers address potential challenges and ensure the integrity of their research. While standards procedures, bureaucratic processes, reviews, clearances and preparations may seem taxing, they are indispensable for rich contributions of the highest integrity.  

Strengthening Research and Policy

The effectiveness and ultimate success — however we choose to measure it — of policy approaches to countering violent extremism depend on a thorough understanding of the phenomenon they try to address. Sound research should be the rock on which good policy is built. Podder’s research in West Africa has informed disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programs with a nuanced understanding of the implications of different types of armed groups. Returnees from community-based armed groups or community defense groups found reintegration less problematic, as reconciliation could be locally administered through local, tribal judicial processes. Such findings from field research can avoid wasting money on programs that cannot yield the desired outcome.

Our understanding of violent extremism has benefitted from an interdisciplinary research field where each discipline and method, qualitative and quantitative, brings a new lens to gathering and analyzing data. Collectively, this cross-pollination of research methods has allowed us to see further than one approach alone ever could. Within a complementary and overlapping web of methods, fieldwork has an important but sometimes overlooked role to play. Without a post-pandemic revival of fieldwork, an academic and intellectual decline is inevitable.

Boglarka Bozsogi is executive coordination and network manager at the RESOLVE Network housed at USIP. 

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