IPS Responsible Research: Researchers Examined

This is a synthesis of the panel “Researchers Examined” given by at the IPS Responsible Research Workshop 2016 (other reports are listed here). The panel was composed of Mr Mahmoud Zeidan (Nakba Archive Project, Beirut, Lebanon), Mohamad-Ali Nayel (Independent journalist, London, UK and Beirut, Lebanon), and Ms Alaa Mustafa (American University in Cairo, Cairo, Egypt).

c. Diego Velazquez, Las Meninas

c. Diego Velazquez, Las Meninas

1. Mahmoud Zeidan, “Blunders and suspicious behavior in researching the Palestinian camps”

Mr Zeidan opened in presentation by taking a step back to look in context at the current defiance toward research and researchers in the camps. To the question “Is there a natural defiance in the camps?” Zeidan answers negatively. Palestinian camps have indeed been under the stcrutiny of research for a long period, during which the relations between refugees and researchers were generally positive. The current sequence, according to Zeidan, begins with the signing of the Oslo Agreements, in 1993. This period marks for the Palestinian refugees of Lebanon a second crisis in terms of the quality of their livelihood in the country (the first one being the War and particularly the massacres of 1982 and 1985-1987).

Drawing from personal experiences, films, articles, and other forms of investigations, the author develops the causes of this fear and how it could be tackled in four points:

a. Overview of research the camps: From the 1950s to the 1970s the camps were pockets of misery, which moved to places of revolution until the 1980s where they slowly became places of misery again. The accumulated attention – which was scarce in Europe until the 1970s – came to fill the vacuum of political organisations and life, especially as the period saw fascination for terrorist and humanitarian studies. The period which followed the Oslo Agreements was marked by a boom of research on the camps, made by NGOs, journalists, academics, and others, leading to a point of over-studiness of most topics. At the same time it is a period of constant worsening of the living conditions of the refugees, leading to the simple equation: The more they are researched, the worse it gets.

b. The phobia of research: Palestinians are in every case a people marked by repression and a conflict, and the 20th century has seen a development of research aimed at military and/or intelligence purposes. It has been widely known that during the Israeli sieges of the camps during the war the army was extremely well informed on the camps, their layouts, their authorities, and so forth. Therefore, whenever researchers arrive, the lack of control on the outcomes of their work leads to defiance. Even if most research is not aimed at harming the Palestinians, it is important to consider the refugees’ perspectives, for whom there is an absolute impossibility to know whether they are confronted to researchers or militaries.

c. Obsessions of research: More important than ignorance of the goals of research, knowledge of its concrete outcomes has led to this paranoia. For the last three decaces, research on the Palestinian refugee camps has willy-nilly contributed to the focus on specific themes which were harmful to the Palestinians. For example, the insistance on the fact that “right of return” can mean “return in Israel,” followed by “findings” saying that most people did not want to return; insistance on antisemitism without contextualising the ambivalence of the terms “Jew/Israeli”, and so forth. Another example has been the case of an association filming and putting online videos of children answering such questions without explaining them that they would be online for a long time, and the harm that could come to them (for instance, having your image online saying you have a problem with Jews can be harmful indeed, both individually and collectively). Besides, the “fad” for Palestinian camp research has led a quantity of poorly-prepared researchers to come in the country and botch the work. Last point: the experience of false promises used to access the field, the recurring lie according which research will help people in the camps, associated to the knowledge that it will not, has to be highlighted.

d. Finally, research works as an industry which has its workers: fixers, facilitators, translators, interpretors, and so forth. This is the starting point for Zeidan’s answers and conclusion: instead of having an informal infrastructure of research, the presentor proposes to formalise it via an institution which would, on behalf of the Palestinian camp dwellers, manage the entry of researchers and control the outputs of their work. This is already the case in the countries of origin, and the clear abuses that have been made on pretext of research call for such a protection, according to Zeidan.

2. Mohamad-Ali Nayel, “The invisible hands in knowledge production”

Mr Nayel’s perspective is included within the industry of research in the camps: following the 2006 war, the presentor became a journalist and a fixer in the camps for international academics and journalists. This job was easy to do because of the influx of foreigners in the country, all needing facilitating and translation. Quickly Nayel noticed that the word “researcher” itself was complicated to use in the camps and did not lead to a lot of positive reactions. What turned out to be the case, during the 9 years of work that followed, was a clear split between elements of interest for the refugees, and for the researchers: the scientific objects were constructed abroad and imported, occasionally forced, on the field, while topics of (vital) importance for the refugees remained entirely ignored. Besides, the growing feeling that researchers presented their demarch as altruist while it aimed at their own self-promotion and career-building became increasingly admitted by the refugees. All this happening while the refugees’ situation did not improve.

A particularly striking example of this situation is the over-focus on security issues in the two camps of Ain el-Hilweh and Shatila during the period. Nayel takes as a turning point the publication of the book Everyday Jihad, by ethnographer Bernard Rougier, in 2007, which described the practices and life of jihadi activists in the camp of Ain el-Hilweh without, according to Nayel, considering the wider context of the camp. As a result, the book overlooks the fact that Ain el-Hilweh, far from being a jihadi enclave, is a society of its own, and does not acknowledge that, for as true as it is, the situation it described is partial and extremely minoritary. In the context of the “War on Terror,” there was in the midst of the publication of that book a cohort of researchers and journalists coming to document the “terrorist camps,” maintaining a lack of focus on the rest of reality in these locales. The camps became, in Nayel’s words, “a fetish hub for Westerners.” Ignoring the requirements of quality fieldwork, almost no personal relation was established, and answers were forced out of people using various forms of symbolic violence such as references to prestigious universities and institutions, political clientelism, or on occasions actual bribes.

All this was included in the industry of fixers and translators who gained money and credibility out of the maintaining of a “database” of “good interviewees.” In other words, research became of way of allowing researchers, journalists, and local workers to thrive, but not a resource for the investigated groups and persons. Specific anecdotes (such as bribe offers and cases of verbal violence) led the presentor to quit this industry and criticise it, thus losing his own occupation.

In conclusion, there are “invisible hands” of research, which are the actors included into that industry of research and whose practice is entirely separated from the discourses they have in other audiences. If not all research is like so, it must be stressed that an important share of it is, and appropriate action must be taken (especially by including the researched’s interests into research protocole, and by seriously tackling ethics).

3. Alaa Mustafa, “‘They called me a researcher, they called me a refugee'”

Mustafa decided to focus on the researchers who worked on this field and their representations on their own work. Because most of them were present in the room [including yours truly – AM], she decided to remain wide in her presentation. The point was to interrogate how research is conducted, how interest works, as well as positionality and priviledge. A first finding is that it is often difficult to distinguish between who the researcher and who the refugee are precisely, as the two categories are entretwined and time-dependent. Three main points have been kept:

a. The main questions: Research on the camps was mostly focused on the daily life of marginalised people, and on the Palestinian cause. Focus on the access to the field (and the forms it takes, especially long stay v. coming and going), as well as the practical outcomes of research seemed to be prominent topics.

b. Methods and practicalities: All the camps have been presented differently, and there is in the end little in common among researchers, in terms of frameworks, methods, questions, and methodological schools (even though we can see a dominance of qualitative ethnographic/oral historical methods).

c. Positions: This question varies depending on the different periods of the field work and is associated to reflections by the researchers on who they are and why they are there. The usual issues of the relation with resistance, the importance of colonial relations, and the impact of the researcher on the field have been raised. In the Lebanese context, the main issue was for whom research is produced: how does it help the refugees? From a lot of accounts, not very much. The question of funding and its effects – as it follows “fads” – was also raised.

In summary, the question remains who is entitled to produce knowledge, and how we think of research as a practice included into relations of power, which calls for systematic investigation and self-investigation.

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