Session 29

Ethical and Methodological Dilemmas of Social Research in Violent Conflict Situations

The overarching goal of this session is to reflect on ethical dilemmas that researchers confront when conducting studies in violent conflict situations and how these dilemmas are overcome as well as their impact on methodologies of such research. The above concerns loom especially large in Africa where there has been proliferation of many forms of violent conflicts championed by violent non-state actors ranging from terrorists, armed militias to violent cultists. The endemic nature of these conflicts in a good number of African nations point to the fact that we need to know more about the nature, dynamics and driving motives of these violent groups besides the very obvious consensus that these are driven by the quest for power, poverty and elite corruption. Such nuanced and reflexive knowledge would go a long way in the general efforts towards understanding, unravelling and overcoming the development retarding effects of these conflicts. Therefore, the need for in-situ research efforts as the basis of evidence-based apprehension of these groups and the conflicts they generate cannot be overstated. However, doing research in a conflict situation generates peculiar challenges and risks. Thus, such research efforts may be confronted with peculiar issues of ethics and by implication appropriate methodologies since the sensitive and overtly risky nature of such undertaking may undermine the desire and effort to abide with the main canons of social research ethics particularly issues of full disclosure and informed consent. In more cases than otherwise, the researcher is confronted with the choice over keeping to the best dictates of research ethics and not doing the study. This ambivalence challenges the innovative capacity of the researcher and often calls for engagement subtilities that one would not confront in any other research situation or environment. In view of the foregoing, the session calls for papers that address the ways and means of conducting ethical research in an on-going conflict situation and the methodologies of such undertaking.

The organizers would particularly welcome submissions anchored on experience of such research undertaking as well as theoretical papers that radically interrogate the ‘do-ability’ of ethical research in such situations. Submissions can be guided and structured by the following issues: challenges of ethical social research in violent conflict situations; innovative strategies for overcoming peculiar ethical challenges in violent conflict situations; practical experience and lessons learnt in research in active conflict situations; methodological challenges of social research in active conflict situations, theoretical insights on ethical and methodological challenges of conflict research; ethical and methodological issues of social research with children living in situations of active conflict; ethical and methodological issues of social research with women in situations of active conflict; other submissions bordering on the general themes of ethics and methodologies of research in active conflict situations.




1.Decoupling or Recoupling? – The Methodological Challenge in Studying the West African Neo-Pentecostal/Charismatic Field as a Business-Ethical Space

Isaac Osei-Tutu  (University of Zurich, Switzerland)

Inasmuch as society is not perfect but prone to faults and nonconformity, Neo-Pentecostal/Charismatic (nPC) churches, organisations and actors may conform to and deviate from ethical norms and policies available in the nPC space as transcendentally given codices (e.g., scriptures, traditions, and societal laws/rules) and/or as constantly generated values in their everyday group activities and social interactions (e.g., organizational codes of conduct, rules and regulations, and unwritten communal expectations, social standards and group demands). NPC institutions conform to or deviate from these given and emergent ethics to, calculably or incalculably, arrive at specific ends in their religious entrepreneurship and other organisational practices. To study such conformities and deviations, connections and disconnections in ethical policies and actual practice of nPC institutions, a methodological possibility would be to apply the organisational theory of decoupling. However, decoupling seems not to do justice to actors as ethical engines in the nPC space since nPC actors in real life do not distinguish given ethics from everyday ethics but practice/live both synchronously and symbiotically. Thus, for nPC actors, there is no disconnection between transcendental and generated ethics, the sacred and the secular, the given and the everyday, as the everyday, the secular, and the generated are informed by and infused with the religious, the sacred, and the transcendental. Besides, not only their deviation from given norms may point to their own imaginations of ethics but the relationality between norms and practice, the given and the everyday may give rise to other practice-oriented ethics. To analyse such a norm–practice–relationality or given–everyday–relationality, a method would also be to apply the organisational theory of recoupling as anthesis to decoupling. Nevertheless, to explore the ethics peculiar to the Neo-Pentecostal/Charismatic space from organisational theological perspectives, neither decoupling nor recoupling perfectly serves the purpose. The question, therefore, is how does one methodologically better approach a religious organisational space such as that of the Pentecostal/Charismatic churches and institutions without deliberately missing out on one or another ethical aspect due to methodological and theoretical shortfalls? My paper addresses this challenge to poke a scholarly discussion about studying the nPC field as an ethical space and to suggest a solution.


2.‘It’s About Going an Extra Mile with High Risk-Sensitive Populations’: Reflections on Using Semi-Structured Interviews with Male Sex Workers.

Lesedi Mashumba  (University of Botswana, Botswana)

In 2018, I embarked upon a doctorate thesis that aimed to explore male sex worker’s experiences, attitudes and perceptions of gender, sexuality, race, and victimisation in their interactions with sex tourists in Botswana. At the time, male sex work had been flourishing under the booming sex tourism industry, and over the past decade, the tourism industry had been one of the fastest growing and largest economic sectors in Africa. Studies in other contexts confirm a strong correlation between growth in the tourism industry and an increase in sex work. While there are theoretically sound and empirically informed studies on the many forms of sex work, especially in Asia and other parts of the world, as well as studies focused on female sex work in the tourism industry, male sex work is still under-researched, and especially its occurrence in the tourism industry in Africa. The sex work and sex tourism linkage is very complex, especially in the African context, where it is entangled in a web of denial of its existence, religious disapproval, and political views fuelled against it. This paper explores the research methodology which utilised in depth face-to-face semi-structured interviews with male sex workers, support groups and the police as important players given the existence of sex work in a semi-criminalised and fuzzy legal system in Botswana. It focuses in particular on the difficulties of obtaining ethical clearance, the challenges faced in securing participants and the strategies used during the fieldwork given the sensitivity of the topic, as well as the impact that this can have on research findings.


3.Between Ethics and Doing It: Reflections on Fieldwork Experience in Northeast Nigeria

Edlyne Anugwom  (University of Nigeria, Nigeria)

While social research is usually anchored on a set of ethics that ensure responsible and sensitive research enterprise, some of these rules pose major challenges in terms of realities of conducting research in a violent conflict situation where issues of the safety of the research team and the overriding need to consummate the enterprise may appear paramount. Often, the risk and unpredictability of the context generate the dilemma of either doing the research in some innovative manner or following ethics and jettisoning it. In view of the above, the paper draws from a recent fieldwork experience in Northeast Nigeria to highlight the dilemmas of social research in a conflict situation. The Northeast zone of Nigeria is the main theatre of the terrorist conflict involving both the Boko Haram and ISWAP in Nigeria. At the time of the fieldwork in 2016, the conflict was at its height with Borno state as the epicentre. Thus, the fieldwork became much more challenging from an ethical point of view especially in view of the requirement of full disclosure. But while doing research in a conflict situation should not be tantamount to jettisoning social research ethics, it calls for subtle creativity on the part of the researcher to carry through the exercise without either contaminating the quality or validity of the outcome as well as ensuring safety. The above requires the possession of a research nimbleness that facilitates the negotiation of turbulent social contexts and mediating both contending parties or affected local populations in the research process.


4.Measuring space-time relationships between civilian deaths and cultural violence in Syria

Fiona Greenland  (University of Virginia, USA)

Michelle Fabiania  (DeSales University, USA)

Proximate and remote observation technologies have expanded the possibilities for information capture in conflict zones. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), earth observation satellites, GIS, and smartphone images are among these technologies. After the information capture and initial processing steps, however, researchers are left with several methodological challenges to develop information into new forms of data. Our paper is based on an international collaboration between social scientists at the University of Virginia (USA) and the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (Uppsala University, Sweden). The team created a fully georeferenced dataset of cultural destruction and civilian deaths events from the Syrian war (2011-18). The work involved cleaning and coding a highly diverse set of materials: satellite imagery, social media posts, government reports, Russian disinformation, and anonymous eyewitness reports in text and video. The heterogeneity is noteworthy because the unconventional formats allowed dissident groups within Syria to make the case for human rights abuses. But it also presented specific challenges to our standards of data reliability, robustness measures, and metadata. In our paper we address how we developed methodologies for coding image- and video-based sources of data; the creation of reliability scales for non-traditional media sources; the creation of temporal coding weights to support spatio-temporal analysis; and the ethics of using publicly available—and potentially identifiable—social media data to study cultural destruction events, particularly media sources that document individual participants. The study was supported with a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), USA.