The difficulty to reach practitioners and experts is one of the main challenges faced especially by young researchers and can overshadow fieldwork experiences and attempts to produce new knowledge. While researchers might get an impression that they are ignored or treated like a nuisance by experts, the latter often have a different view at researchers’ attempt to reach them. We look at nuances and blind spots of the interaction between researchers and practitioners through two pairs of eyes, and suggest a way forward, towards a more dialogical, collaborative approach, write Philipp Lottholz and Karolina Kluczewska.
One aspect that came to the fore on recent exchanges about research on Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and International Organisations (IOs) in Central Asia was the difficulty of gaining insight into their activities and knowledge when doing field research. Many if not all researchers are finding it hard to collect rich empirical material during their field trips. The struggles and dilemmas they are confronted with can relate to research ethics, safety of research participants, interlocutors or researchers themselves, and the emotional baggage accumulated from these and other fieldwork aspects. Yet, accounts of these struggles, the search for solutions and acknowledgement of failures tend not to make it beyond informal conversations and some reflective formats on academic conferences and blogs. In this contribution we unpack the particular difficulty researchers encounter when trying to reach practitioners and experts in specific areas. We look at the issue – that researchers are treated like a nuisance in more or less obvious ways – from the perspective both of a researcher critically reflecting on fieldwork in retrospective and that of a former practitioner. While we use the general term NGOs we understand this to include both national and international NGOs. By IOs we mean organisations with bilateral (e.g. DFID, GIZ) or intergovernmental mandates (such as the UN system or OSCE).
Doing field research with/on NGOs: A researcher’s perspective (Philipp)
Everyone who has done fieldwork in developing and peripheral countries will share this impression to some extent: It can be a greatly satisfying activity but is also marked by a lot of precarious – even if just emotionally – moments. The fact that researchers usually depend entirely on the readiness of national and international organisations, institutions or individuals to participate in their research usually subjects them to a painful initial ‘trial and error’ period. However, even once they get the trick, researchers are usually confined to a ‘scattered and shadowy presence in the field’. As Loyle and Simoni note in their article on researcher trauma, especially graduate students and junior researchers may feel stressed to succumb to rigid timelines and carry out research despite limitations and risks incurred by their research framings and techniques. However, even if academics encounter a lot of access barriers and may sometimes openly be treated as a nuisance, it is worth reflecting on why this is so and how we as researchers might be complicit in the production of such tense and uncooperative situations.
In my own field research on peace-building and community security practices in the Kyrgyz Republic, I encountered both indirect and direct resistance and non-cooperation from NGOs during my MSc research in 2012 and doctoral fieldwork in 2015. The first challenge stems from the fact that web pages of major actors are often scarce, and indicate only general areas of activity or dated lists of realised projects. This often made it impossible to prepare questions and interview requests based on information about ongoing activities. Although perhaps partly due to negligence, lack of capacity and human resources, this non-transparency reflects attempts to limit public exposure so as to prevent interference or criticism from a population that had proven unsympathetic to the involvement of international actors in Kyrgyzstan who, like in Russia, were about to be classified as ‘foreign agents’ in a 2014 draft law.