Fieldwork Research in Sensitive Contexts: Interviewing Bosnian War Victims

by Jessie Barton Hronešová


Any student that has embarked upon fieldwork in Bosnia and Herzegovina has probably faced the question of how to reconcile the objectives of his or her research project and the expectations and needs of his or her respondents. Fieldwork in Bosnia is not only challenging due to the dissonance of opinions depending on which ethno-national side you talk to, but also because the war trauma and the tortuous post-war development have left behind a disillusioned and disengaged people who have become suspicious of foreigners.

While I was aware of these challenges from my previous work in Bosnia, the additional layer came with the sensitivity of the topic of my research – compensation for war victims – and the discipline I am in – political science. Although I wanted to gather ‘data’ about how compensation has been enacted in the country and for whom, what was hidden behind this data were real-life stories, suffering, and traumas. Torn between ethnographic emic perspectives and the rigours of political science, these real-life stories were hard to incorporate in my PhD in the fashion that my respondents probably expected. In this article, I want to briefly explore this tension between respondents’ expectations and research outcomes, and ponder over some of the ethical dilemmas of doing research in sensitive contexts.

Giving Voice

I have worked on topics related to transitional justice, post-war reckoning, and establishing a dialogue between the three key Bosnian ethno-national groups (Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats) for over a decade – both as an academic and an NGO worker. During these years, I have understood the value of personal stories. However, academic work in political science rarely values personal stories in the same way as a media article or advocacy campaign. Therefore, the first dilemma I had to deal with was how to narrate personal stories of my respondents that would also be valuable for the academic work I was conducting. Some of my interviews lasted up to three hours because the respondent simply wanted to tell his or her story in full – but this was in most cases irrelevant for my actual research.

I have often felt that I was not giving enough voiceto my respondentsas such stories were not necessary for the aims of my PhD. For example, a victim who lost a son spent two hours describing the painful details of her search for his body, which I was unable to represent in full in my thesis. I nearly felt as if I were betraying her by not giving a more detailed account of her life story. But while I would have liked to include all the stories I have gathered, it simply would not have made my thesis any better and with the word limit became unnecessary pieces of evidence in the academic lingo. This crude reality was often hard to swallow.

Expectation Gap

The second issue was with my ability – or lack thereof – not to become engaged in my respondents’ lives beyond the call of PhD duty. Listening to stories of suffering and experiencing the traumas my respondents have been living with would leave only a few of us unmoved. But this becomes even more difficult to handle when you are expected to do something as has been my case.

I have experienced many times that my respondents expected me to offer something in return – either helping with their funding efforts, lobbying with important institutions, or directly assisting them. A member of a victim association in Sarajevo who shared her wartime story of surviving a shell attack and losing her leg, directly told me that I was of no use (unless I convinced ‘those at the top to help us’) and that after I leave they would continue suffering in the same way. The expectation gap in terms of what type of assistance I can or should offer was frustrating to me no matter how much I tried to explain to my respondents (and myself) the value and contributions of academic research to the general knowledge and even policymaking.

Keeping objectivity

The final issue (linked to the previous ones) has been the most difficult to handle – keeping objectivity. I experienced this most prominently in Banja Luka. Although there has been a tendency to study only Bosniak (and sometimes Croat) victims in Bosnia, I did not want to go down this route, which is why I also interviewed many Serb victims and did extensive fieldwork in Republika Srpska. But I soon realised that keeping objectivity was to be one of the hardest things I had to do. The reason for that was that many victim associations in Republika Srpska have become vanguards of the so-called ‘Srpska nationalism’.

This was most clearly the case of a leader of a Bosnian Serb organization for ‘women victims of war’ in Banja Luka. During our interview, she insisted that Serb women were tortured by Bosniak soldiers in the same fashion and to the same extent as Bosniak women were by Serb soldiers, which is not supported by the existing evidence. Similar to my other respondents in RS, she praised Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic as great Serb heroes and denied the existence of nearly 8,000 killed Bosniak men in Srebrenica. It was hard not to engage in an argument with her although that was not the aim of my interview. While I tried to dispute some of her statistics, my sources were quickly dismissed and I gave up any efforts to convince her about the implausibility of the facts she presented. (It must be said that many victim associations among Bosniaks and Croats are equally stressing their ethno-national suffering and belittling the suffering of the others – a term often called ‘egoism of victimhood’ – but not to such an extent I experienced in RS.)

After this last experience, I started digging into the ethics of sensitive research and how other scholars have dealt with similar dilemmas. While there seem to be various ways, I have taken a more engaging approach in how to handle these dilemmas. In order to give my respondents more voice, I incorporated their accounts by using parts of their stories to illustrate a broader contextual point and by writing more outside of the PhD. Some stories have been so captivating that I have included them in blogs, media articles, and also shared them with the broader community of scholars and policymakers at conferences and meetings. This way, their voice has not become fully silenced by the needs of my academic work. To my mind, this has also been one way of giving something back to my respondents. Although I have tried to assist them by additional support, I can hardly convince the ICTY to create a victim fund to distribute compensation, which is what many asked me to do. But as an academic I can raise the awareness about the issues outside of my PhD thesis through advocacy. I also think that this in fact is the call of duty of our PhD work – once we deeply understand an issue, the step towards advocating for addressing the issue is only natural and rightly so.  

Keeping and providing brokers

However, the key lesson learnt has been on how to handle the issue of objectivity. While it never did any good to argue with my respondents when I disagreed with them (and that was also not my objective), I had to be transparent about my project and aims. I stated in the ‘consent forms’ that I would be the judge of the gathered responses but that I would cite and paraphrase rigorously. While it was difficult, I tried not to make any quick conclusions about my respondents’ views without anchoring them in a broader setting. For example, for the case of the female Serb leader, this meant that I did not frame her views as reprehensible because of her nationalism but I framed them within the context in which she has spent her life and formed such views. She has been living under harsh socio-economic conditions in an increasingly authoritarian context. To her, complying with the main political discourse of RS is currently a rational way to survive economically. And believing in the innocence of Ratko Mladic is not aberrant in RS. Propaganda of over two decades has created a community where denial is mistaken for truth. While I still fail to empathise with her individual views, I can at least present them alongside the context, which has shaped them.

Finally, the alternative strategy I sometimes used to avoid dealing with such dilemmas was to use ‘brokers’, i.e. persons who worked with victims and had access to their experiences, such as psychotherapists or civil-society workers. Brokers have the experience, training, and moral standing to say things I would have been pilloried for as a junior researcher. Moreover, they could provide me with a broader setting and explanations of the context. While this may be a good strategy to begin with, it could not have fully replaced the experience I gathered when talking to victims directly.

In sum, doing research in sensitive contexts not only asks from the researcher to dig deep into the nuts and bolts of how to gather data but also into one’s moral codes about what is the call of duty of a PhD and what is the human duty. While I do not have any magic-bullet solutions to the dilemmas I encountered, I believe that no fieldwork research can be done without a personal – and not only intellectual – engagement with our respondents (anthropologists are the main pioneers of such approaches). I also do not believe that the growing calls for rigorous qualitative research in political science that is driven by objectivity should be mistaken for dealing with our respondents in the same way we deal with other sources of information. Doing field research in sensitive contexts and talking to people calls for an additional dose of understanding and reciprocity.


The Author

Jessie Barton Hronešová is a ESRC Postdoctoral Fellow at the Oxford Department of International Development. Jessie’s life goal is to combined academic research and policymaking in foreign policy, aid and development. Her research focuses on governance, justice and politics of South Eastern Europe, while her political work see more…


Barton Hronešová, Jessie: “Fieldwork Research in Sensitive Contexts: Interviewing Bosnian War Victims”; in: Globalising Southeastern Europe (26.06.2017); URL:

Further articles by Jessie Hronešová

Barton Hronešová, Jessie: “Albania under Construction: The Façade of Politics”; in: Globalising Southeastern Europe (09.05.2017); URL:

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