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Ribale Sleiman-Haidar

August 26th, 2015

Researching the “Un-researchable”: State Politics and Research Ethics

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Ribale Sleiman-Haidar

August 26th, 2015

Researching the “Un-researchable”: State Politics and Research Ethics

0 comments

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

by Evren Balta


This memo was presented at a workshop in Rabat on ‘The Ethics of Political Science Research and Teaching in MENA’, organised by the LSE Middle East Centre and King Mohammed V University in Rabat on 9-11 June 2015.

A refugee from the Syrian town of Kobani holds onto a fence that surrounds a refugee camp in the border town of Suruc, Turkey.  Copyright Jordi Bernabeu Farrús, flickr.com
A refugee from the Syrian town of Kobani holds onto a fence that surrounds a refugee camp in the border town of Suruc, Turkey. Copyright Jordi Bernabeu Farrús, flickr.com

Since the Syrian crisis began in 2011, Turkey has been estimated to host over one and a half million Syrian refugees. As the plight of the refugees continues to increase, the Turkish government’s capacity to sustain and extend resources to them has significantly diminished. But more importantly, Turkey’s refugee policy has become a major source of domestic tension. In several border provinces, Syrians have begun to outnumber locals, escalating the local tensions between Turkish citizens and Syrian refugees over jobs, rents, and security. With this, the government has been increasingly criticised for the lack of transparency in its administration of the refugee camps, with the allegedly sectarian refugee admission policy becoming an issue of domestic tension and criticism. The Turkish government has also been accused of harboring Syrian jihadist fighters in Turkey, training them, providing them with resources and arms, providing them with a safe haven in refugee camps, and allowing them to cross the Turkish-Syrian border almost daily.

Amidst these heated domestic tensions and debates, the Higher Education Council (YOK) has issued a directive (classified as secret) informing academics that they need prior approval of the Interior Ministry before conducting any type of survey or field work among Syrian refugees in the country. The reason behind this decision was ‘to protect the privacy of the refugees’. Although this directive does not come with any kind of enforcement, it is a signal that the government renders research specifically on Syrian refugees a taboo. It effectively closes a research zone that previously was wide open and accessible, as Syrian refugees have become an issue of ‘national security’.

These restrictions illustrate how illiberal governments in the Middle East structure the field of social science research. There are certain topics that are easily accessible for field research, with available data open to almost anyone. On the other hand, certain topics are considered taboo. Most importantly, research accessibility changes with the political climate; certain topics previously considered taboo can suddenly become unproblematic.

One example is the Dersim massacre of 1938, a province that Turkey’s Kemalist founders had difficulty bringing under the control of the central state. In Dersim, a number of clashes between the military and armed groups occurred, followed by a full-scale military campaign leaving almost 13,000 civilians dead and another 12,000 deported to the western regions of Turkey. Ten years ago, research on the Dersim events was considered taboo. It was only when then Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan referred to it as a ‘massacre’ in November 2011 and apologised for the state’s wrongdoings, that this taboo became an accessible topic.

This was due to the decision of the then neo-Islamist governing party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), to launch a campaign against the old establishment by using the Dersim massacre as a symbol of Kemalist oppression. Obviously, the flourishing social science literature around Dersim is not something engineered by the governing party. Researchers were simply given the opportunity to study these events and they grabbed it.

Similar arguments can be made regarding the study of the Kurdish issue, which was almost completely taboo until the mid-2000s. As the political climate towards Kurds softened and as the Turkish government began to make concessions, the window of opportunity for field research opened. For the first time in Turkey’s history, social scientists, though not many yet, went into the field to conduct relevant research. However, even this partial opening stood on shaky ground. As the government vacillated between peace and conflict, so did the research. Thus, even when a taboo topic becomes researchable, the issue of unpredictability prevails, and researchers still hesitate and fear reprisal.

In addition, governments enforce an unofficial accreditation system based on ‘networks of trust’. Certain archives are only open to researchers who are in that network; data are available to them, but not to others. Certainly, foreigners rank worst on that front. Archives on sensitive issues and data on taboo topics are virtually unavailable to them. For example, in Turkey, ‘the law on the right to information’, which researchers frequently use to access information that is not public, specifically states that the right applies only to citizens and permanent residents. Many requests by foreigners to access data are rejected on the basis of ‘national security’.

As a local, being critical of the regime or not being inline with its agenda make you lose your benefits. You may be attacked for advocating foreign interests; you may get fired or even jailed. When the stakes are this high, the divide between taboo and accessible topics is then internalised by researchers and results in self-censorship.

Conducting research on these taboo topics is not only difficult because of direct state repression, fear, or censorship. The unavailability of funding is also a major obstacle. With few options for private or international funding, major funding opportunities for local researchers in the MENA region come from public sources, which are obviously political. Through market mechanisms, state funding agencies divert researchers’ attention to topics that are more likely to receive support. It is also difficult for researcher working on taboo topics to find jobs. Although private universities are booming in the region, out of fear of government reprisal, they do not hire outspoken critics.

The experience of research very clearly reflects the politics of a country in the sense that ‘research on research’ is extremely valuable for understanding how politics work. It shows how the nature of the political and the nature of field research are intimately tied together. The research field operates like a battlefield, where there are zones of peace and tranquility as well as other areas of conflict, not advisable to visit. Understanding these divisions enables researchers to conduct better fieldwork, empowering them to better respond to questions of permissibility and impartiality of research.

I believe that this two-tiered system—a system that works by creating taboo topics—posits a major challenge to social scientists. It influences the questions we ask and structures the answers we give. We need to find ways to conduct more research on what governments deem to be unsuitable for research. We need to empower those who conduct such research. And we need to find ways to start a dialogue about this issue.


Evren Balta is Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Yildiz Technical University.


Other memos from the workshop

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