IPS Responsible Research: Research Impact: Technical Brokers and Digital Maps

This is a synthesis of the panel “Research Impact: Technical Brokers and Digital Maps” given by at the IPS Responsible Research Workshop 2016 (other reports are listed here). The panel was composed of Mr Alex Mahoudeau (King’s College London, London) and Pr Monika Halkort (Lebanese American University, Beirut, Lebanon).

Unknown author, United Nations correspondents at the armistice building, Panmunjom, Korea

Unknown author, United Nations correspondents at the armistice building, Panmunjom, Korea

1. Alex Mahoudeau, “How Palestinian activists use research on the Palestinian camps: Technical resources, vocabularies of motives and politicisation in the Beirut camps”

The presentation began with an anecdote: the researcher noticed that a number of the persons he was meeting on his research were not only trained in social sciences, but owned or had read numbers of studies about the camps which were included in his own literature review. This leads to think of the relation between the fact that activists are present in the camps who, contrarily to previous periods, have reached engagement through studies, and the fact that the discourse of the organisations they worked in appears as “depoliticised.” In other words the presentor found himself thinking that research on Palestinian camps has not been that external to the camps, and that this has convsersely transformed the legitimate ways to talk about certain issues in these camps.

This was particularly visible for the author in the trajectories which led the activists to become activists: when talking to persons who joined the organisations prior to the transformation of the structure of funding in the 1980s/1990s, their history referred mostly to nationalist or political organisations, while “younger” activists were talking mostly about the university or finding a job, and evoked technical resources such as their studies, academic accomplishments, or capacities in leading research in the camps. Yet the age divide is only partial: there are representatives of both groups in both generations, what appears to have happened is instead a transformation of the internal relations between different groups with different ways to frame action, and in the context of the 1980s/1990s crisis, the “technical brokers” appear to have gained the upper hand.

This “upper hand” is due to their capacity to understand, reproduce, and apply the codes of international funding, which demands competences in and of research, the mastering of a specific vocabulary of “good governance” and “local development,” for example, and a specific way to present problems in order to secure funding. Yet it would be naive not to see the political struggles behind that: far from a depoliticisation, we observe the use of resources owned by a specific group in order to assert domination and control, and to impose its agenda – besides, some of these brokers have openly recalled that their aim was not “just” to solve local issues. This can be seen in the dynamics of leaving parties which mark a part of this group.

In conclusion, it should always be surprising that persons “answer perfectly” in an interview: it could be that they are aware of the doxa of the field of research investigated by the researcher, and are simply feeding them the answers they are looking for. The question is not to bust liars, but to think about why it is that people are answering researchers such or such thing, and that these things tend to vary according to the situation. Finally, the presentor insists that researchers – especially non-Palestinians – should beware a discourse which has associated these “technical brokers” to “depoliticising agents:” it is not the work of researchers to explain who are the “real” Palestinians.

2. Monika Halkort, “Liquifying Social Capital. On the political affordances of digital mediation in a Palestinian refugee camp”

The presentation is an exemplification of what cybernetics are about, even though the presentor will not dwelve in the details of that specific question. She intends to show the political economy of data in rebuilding the Nahr el-Bared camp and their importance in political relations. Following the destruction of the camp by the Army, indeed, this data was the last remnant permitting it to survive. Yet there is an issue: indeed, data belongs to the realm of individual property, but individual property rights are attached not to groups but individuals. Thus leading to the question: should there be a role for researchers in constructing collective data and what should it be?

Regarding Nahr el-Bared, the time is appropriate because we are running toward the end of the funding and therefore what has been done risks being all that will be done. Therefore we must acknowledge what mistakes have been made and keep it in mind should a similar situation happen again.

What we see is that data – as objects – is not in linear relation with people and the things they represent. There is a construction of the way things are being represented and conversely the data changes the things it was supposed to represent. Indeed the data represents a precarious environment made precarious by the war, which has actualised the status of non-property over the informal built environment. The war has also implied the loss of a capacity to rebuild by the refugees. This is the context in which digital mapping has become useful, but just as financial derivatives, they implied a capacity to wager on derived properties of the real, and not on the real itself.

Digital maps have allowed the refugees to transfer luck into capacity. In discussions on the maps, people were invited to speculate on them, and on space, leading the maps to become tools for a conflicts on space and accessibility to space. For example, people have started using the maps to speculate on land, by actually buying it. These effects created their own effects afterwards. Therefore we can see that the data has an independent effect.

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