Ethics and the Multiplicity of Harms in Post-Conflict Research

by Ivor Sokolić

11.05.2020

Researching post-conflict societies presents researchers with a unique set of ethical problems that institutional ethics procedures struggle to include in their frameworks. Scholars, especially inexperienced scholars, are often sent into the field without appropriate measures in place to prevent harm from occurring to their research participants, to the societies they are researching, and to the researchers themselves. The dichotomous nature of ethics procedures, which construct ethical considerations as a static pass/fail test, do not appropriately take into account the multiplicity of harms we can cause, the harms we can suffer, and the harms that are left behind in the field.

My insight is based on my own experience of studying transitional justice in the former Yugoslavia; on the experiences of my colleagues; and, on the nascent literature on this topic (for example: Knott, 2019; Kostovicova, 2016; Shesterinina, 2018). Numerous individuals who took part in my PhD research suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), some were aware of it, others were not. I followed my ethics guidelines to the letter, yet this did not prevent breakdowns in the middle of groups and individuals being re-traumatised. Typically, all that is required for approval for this type of research is the filling out of an ethics questionnaire, where Iresearchers outline potential risks for causing harm to participants, but these questionnaires offer a too static and dichotomous picture of harm. In order to overcome it, we need to become aware of the multiplicities of harm.

First, we need to better address the harm we can cause to participants, to individuals who facilitate our research, and to communities. Trauma, such as PTSD, can be hidden and; individuals may not be aware they are suffering from it. Different countries offer different levels of recognition and support for the condition, if they offer any at all, and this can have an effect on the research environment we operate in. Trauma also affects more than just one individual; it affects whole families and future generations. For example, ethics procedures generally do not consider discussion of conflict themes with individuals born after a conflict to be sensitive, other than in quite specific circumstances, but they do not take into account that for many of these individuals, their everyday lives are defined by these conflicts. Their parents and their homes are still defined by them.

Ethics procedures focus on participants but can ignore the gatekeepers that help facilitate our research. These individuals could very well have been participants themselves and can also suffer from our research, directly or indirectly. Similarly, communities can suffer indirectly from our research, since these participants need to return to their communities, where they may come to express their trauma. The harm we can cause is broader and more multidimensional than current frameworks account for.

Second, we need to better address the harm that we can suffer. Stress is passed on to researchers (for example, see Kostovicova, 2016). Researchers are often alone in the field, without close support of their supervisors or institutions. Conversations with colleagues, especially junior ones, working in post-conflict environments around the world have highlighted similar concerns in a variety of settings. A recurring experience with many is that they also suffer from stress following individual or group interviews, which in extreme instances requires pausing fieldwork and in milder instances requires at least a “cooling off” period after each session.

Researchers are exposed to the emotions of their participants, but rarely given a structured outlet to deal with them. These emotions are not simple. Recent research has shown that we can feel empathy, but also fear, towards our research participants, which affects how we conduct our research (Shesterinina, 2018). A strong practice of reflexivity is necessary, potentially even in positivist research, to take these effects into account. Even if our positionality does not affect our analysis, it can affect our data collection, yet this is rarely recognised in some parts of the scholarship.

Third, we need to understand that harm can be left behind in the field. Research sites are not static and “hermetically sealed” (Knott, 2019: 140). They do not stay frozen in time at the moment our research is conducted, although ethics procedures assume they are. People continue to live in these locations after we return home and we have an obligation to make sure harm is not caused after we leave. Yet ethics councils, funders, and project deadlines do not take this into account; instead they focus on making research quick and efficient, with no follow-up. For example, transcription of interviews and travel time often feature heavily in fieldwork timetabling; rest days in order to recover from post-interview stress and return trips to visit participants are rarely included. Whether participants were harmed later or whether they would have benefitted from follow-up interactions is completely ignored, although it chimes perfectly with the priorities of maximising benefits and minimising harms.

My argument is not that research should be more limited, because I believe the benefits of rigorous post-conflict research are important. But, I believe we can increase benefits and lessen potential harms by improving ethics procedures. Methodological innovation is driving post-conflict research in new and exciting directions, but ethical frameworks are not keeping up. Research is unravelling the complexities of violence, harm, trauma, and participantsparticipation, but this is not reflected in ethics procedures. A first step in resolving this is to continue to develop the discussion of the topic. The pieces featured here are only a short selection of a small but growing field. We can then begin to connect our research to our ethics procedures, moving away from bureaucratic and lengthy box-ticking exercises that do not address the needs of our research participants or our research.

References

Knott, E. (2019). Beyond the Field: Ethics after Fieldwork in Politically Dynamic Contexts. Perspectives on Politics, 17(1), 140-153.

Kostovicova, D. (2016) The Question of Ethics. LSE Department of Government Blog. Available at:https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/government/2016/03/02/the-question-of-ethics/

Shesterinina, A. (2019). Ethics, empathy, and fear in research on violent conflict. Journal of Peace Research, 56(2), 190-202.

Title picture: “Vukovar Water tower 2010”, by Viktor Đerek. Wikimedia Commons. Licence: CC BY-SA 4.0.

The Author

Ivor Sokolić is a Research Officer at the European Institute at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He works on the ERC funded project “Justice Interactions and Peacebuilding: From Static to Dynamic Discourses across National, Ethnic, Gender and Age Groups”. He is interested in studying processes of transitional justice and reconciliation in the aftermath of conflict. He focuses his research on the former Yugoslav states… see more

Citation

Sokolić, Ivor: “Ethics and the Multiplicity of Harms in Post-Conflict Research”; in: Globalising Southeastern Europe (11.05.2020); URL: https://global-sees.org/2020/05/11/ethics-and-the-multiplicity-of-harms-in-post-conflict-research/

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