IPS Responsible Research: Researchers’ Responsibility, Impact, and Effect

This is a synthesis of the panel “Researchers’ Responsibility, Impact, and Effect” given by at the IPS Responsible Research Workshop 2016 (other reports are listed here). The panel was composed of Dr Mayssoun Sukarieh (King’s College London, London, UK), Ms Anne Irfan (London School of Economics, London, UK), Pr Anaheed al-Hardan (American University of Beirut, Beirut, Lebanon), and Dr Perla Issa (Institute of Palestine Studies, Beirut, Lebanon).

Gustave_Doré,_le_départ_de_Louis_IX_pour_la_croisade

Gustave Doré, The Departure of Louis IX to the Crusades

1. Mayssoun Sukarieh, “On the Politics of Fieldwork with Palestinians:  The Researched Speak Back”

The presentation starts with an anecdote: at the end of the 1990s, Sukarieh was a frequent visitor in the camps and took a few young Palestinian refugees to the IPS. Upon seeing all the books about their living place in the library, some asked why, since there was so much research, they were still refugees, and shouldn’t all that research have led to a solution to their predicament. This is, in fact, not a situation restricted to the Palestinian refugee camps: there has been a transformation in research and it has led to a current situation of both multiplication and inefficiency. Of course, for Sukarieh, this is not due to evil intentions: research never was that independent in the first place, and researchers nowadays are not foreign agents that aim to undermine the Palestinian cause.

Instead the change lies in the development of an industry of research on the camps, which has been completely integrated by the camp dwellers: when the author accepted eventually to work as a researcher in the camps her contacts had a change of attitude, laughing and asking her who she wanted to lie to her first about their situation. This led the author to a realisation of how research was perceived as an essentially useless activity, in which they had to “whine” about typical stories in order to secure support. That was at first because of the multiplication of NGOs conducting research, who insisted on obtaining specific satisfactory answers from people in order to help them. The narrative of fallacy and humiliation, and the essentially victimising discourse expected by the NGOs turned out to become a sort of truth for some of the younger camp dwellers, with terrible restrospective effects. This realisation led Sukarieh to work on research rather than on the Palestinian camp dwellers themselves. The topic was very new to them and they had plenty to say about it, with great pleasure.

Beside all the elements described in the author’s article “On the problem of over-researched communities,” the most striking element was the effect of fads and how the perception of researchers played a bigger role than the lived reality of the Palestinian camps dwellers. For example, the “fad” on “participatory research” was biased by it being costly for the investigated persons (in terms of time and effort) and on it not tackling the issues they wanted it to (for example, if the theme chosen was menopausis or HIV, it could not be changed, whatever the resistance or opposition to these themes). The problem of over-research and the industry of research is that it causes that sort of epistemological violence on the populations it targets, and does so “for their own good.”

The problem of over-research and its effects isn’t, for Sukarieh, simply a question of individual ethics or good practices: we cannot treat it through a management of researcher guilt. There must be a collective work on ethics and on the legitimate objects of research, included in a struggle for the independence of research themes from the passions of the funding bodies. Otherwise, research will continue being a form of violence applied to the Palestinians.

2. Anne Irfan, “Research with/out Responsibility: The Role of Academics in the Palestinian Refugee Camps of Lebanon”

Irfan aims at discussing the impact of research on the Palestinian refugee camps and the ways to move forward constructively from the current situation. As we know, once again, the situation of the Palestinian camps of Lebanon is specific on several aspects. The first one is that these camps are, since the 1960s, been particularly important for the Palestinian movement, with several memorable dates (1969, 1982, 1985-87, and so forth) being associated with the whole of Palestinian history. Second, Lebanon is the last host state in the region where the majority of the refugee population does live in camps (around 52%). As has been previously discussed, the camps are subjected to an increased interest for research since they have started to lose power in the country. This has been alienating for the refugees on several dimensions, the first one being the loss of the capacity to decide the terms in which their situation is to be discussed and described. There is also a phenomenon of exploitation of the Palestinians by research.

As they are not protected from exploitation in the labour market, Palestinian refugees are not protected from exploitation in the research relation. There is in fact a generalisation of exploitation in that particular type of relation from the researchers, taking the shape of misinformation on the goals and audiences of research, bad consent practices, the mobilisation of the “research infrastructure” which relies on reflexes, the institutionalisation of certain research questions, and so forth.

This is particularly reinforced by a perspective on ethics which constructs it as a prior act made by the researcher: instead of an ethnographic and comprehensive apprehension of ethics, more and more, the practice of consent consists in signing documents before participating in any study – which may lead to the realisation that one does not want to contribute – instead of developing a relation of trust and negotiation. Awareness of the issue is part of the solution: the problem of bad research practices is not linked to poorly-trained researchers or indidivual mistakes, it is the result of a specific organisation of the research labour, which encourages top-down, brutal, non-comprehensive research on the camps, in which the observed have no say on what is being done, and are only sources for the extraction of knowledge. This is what needs to be changed.

3. Anaheed Al-Hardan, “Decolonizing Research on Palestinians: Towards Critical Epistemologies and Research Practices”

Al-Hardan’s presentation relies on the two basic premises of postcolonial social sciences: 1. modern knowledge production is based on the colonial experience, as the premises of modern science are laid as the European societies were constructing their legitimacy to dominate the world (in other words the “I” of “I think therefore I am (therefore I am legitimate to control the world)” is “I European person”); 2. despite the administrative end of colonialism, there are still colonialist premises to contemporary social and political relations, and those are being experienced in research. A research project conducted in the Middle East and conceived in the United Kingdom is, therefore, conceivable as a colonial experience. The question is: can we do otherwise?

The author takes as an example the beginning of her PhD on the memories of Nakba: as a third generation Palestinian, the questions she was asked during that period were about her sources and research question, discrediting her own experience and personal knowledge of the topic. Research is constructed as a colonial experience in which what is studied is the Other necessarily. This epistemological perspective, which assumes an external and universal truth, is obviously incorrect. A second experience of the same phenomenon relied in the origins of theory: in Middle Eastern Studies, it is assumed implicitly that theory is to be produced in the US or Europe and “applied” or “confirmed” on the field, in the Middle East. The place of production of theories is not irrelevant, it indicates who legitimately produces knowledge, and who is there only to be observed.

This situation, at a generalised level, means that the Palestinians are never producers of narratives or histories concerning Palestinians. They are, at best, proletarians of research employed as “associates” or “assistants,” which participates in reproducing an imperialist and colonialist narrative on Palestinians. These results can be mitigated by acknowledging the existence of institutions which allow agency, hinting at the fact that the problem is not of persons. Two proposals can be derived from that: there is a need for alternative epistemologies, at first; second, there is a need for opening research to the community, either in external or internal institutions.

4. Perla Issa, “‘You want to solve our problems?’ Reflections on conducting fieldwork in Nahr el-Bared camp”

Issa’s presentation discussed the idea that a researcher should be useful, and how it affects the research. The researcher knew the camps well before beginning her project, and when she eventually began working in research, noticed how deeply the relation changed with people, who started immediately asking ironically whether she planned to solve all their problems. This “practical solution” to gain access (pretending one comes to help people, without actually doind so) has been long integrated by the camp dwellers. This long history of disappointments has led the refugees to think of themselves as an exploited, abused group, which is constantly being tricked into providing help for those who pretend to help them.

This is particularly visible when interacting with refugees on the question of researche, when they generally acknowledge that they are being used for the promotion of researchers, but it also transpired when NGOs come at play: in several projects in which money was being provided to camp dwellers in exchange for work, refugees described their conviction that the whole project was a fraud aimed at diverting the refugees’ money to NGOs and their employees. The feeling of corruption and scamming, as with political parties, is constant.

There is a paradox: while researchers tend to think of themselves as activists coming to the camps to help people, the very persons who they pretend willing to help perceive them as agents of an infrastructure of corruption and scamming they are being victims of. As a common phrasing goes, “We [refugees] give our voice, but it never comes back to us].” This legitimation of research by help has been, on the long run, extremely harmful both to researchers, and more importantly to the refugees themselves, and the lie of “Coming to solve people’s problems” without actually doing so must be rejected.


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