Bird, Gemma (2022). ‘Reflections From "the Field": The Activist and the Activist Scholar in Conversation’, Political Anthropological Research on International Social Sciences (online first). [Open Access]

How do scholars approach their field of inquiry and what is their role vis-à-vis their interlocutors? The question may trigger a general reflection on research ethics, especially in the field of social research, when interlocutors of precarious status and/or in repressive environments expose their knowledge and judgement at the risk of repercussions. Scholars may find their role and performance to overlap with other well-known professions and positionalities in the field, like ethnographers, journalists or documentary film makers. Those professions have their own history of reflection on those questions. But in the field of refugee studies and International Relations this sort of self-reflection is not widespread, to say the least. Gemma Bird, a current fellow at the Centre, was interested in the situation at a Greek refugee camp on the island of Samos. There, she met Liska from Glocal Roots, who ran a centre supporting refugee women on the island, and she asked for an interview about her experience in solidarity work in Samos, Lesbos, and Athens. A dialogue between Gemma, the scholar-activist and Liska, the NGO-activist, developed over time, when conditions facing refugees in the Reception and Identification Centre (RIC; closed as of September 2021) that neighbours the town of Vathy, were much debated. Gemma in an impressive article in this issue re-visits the abandoned camp in 2022 again. This ongoing talk between Gemma and Liska resulted in the Q&A piece here, developed Gemma's later visit from a slightly formalized email conversation. This exchange of experience and judgement is especially enlightening, when Liska relates her encounters with other researchers visiting the refugee camp. Long stays helped, but not always. Liska clearly laments a case, when a researcher, while staying over months, exploited refugees and triggered their utterances to fit the research design. Other refugees express irritation after talks that were ended, when they started to talk about the really important things. Chances for misunderstandings obviously abound in this 'gated' setting. Gemma is interested in exactly this. Liska struggles at the borderline of this situation, when she performs as an informant, as a subject of research herself and at times also as a gatekeeper, who enables encounters with certain refugees or not. The piece touches on many points that are reflected in current literature on the subject and Gemma in a kind of creative montage weaves those quotes into her own paragraphs. Liska nevertheless rarely takes those references up.
What should and should not be exposed? How would you meet a traumatized person and what would you make out of such a recording? The question of victimization: 'Silencing a group or an individual by declaring them as vulnerable', whereas it might be 'the situation rather than the people that should be understood as vulnerable'. Here we have the positionality question again. As a journalist, you would follow your journal's policy, as a scholar-activist, you have your critical mind-set. But on both sides, you need a kind of proof, a legitimation for your narrative that should at least not contradict the facts on the ground. But those facts are no neutral zone either. Gemma here introduces the concept of a  ‘vocational approach’, one that recognises that ‘research ethics in practice is about negotiating dilemmas not following rules’ (citing Heathershaw & Mullojonov). So what about refugees having a say in how their story is presented, even in academia? Story-sharing techniques are a way to do this. A general approach to include an attitude of solidarity is called critical participatory action research. Liska refers to her best practice experience with a researcher. 'Her approach managed to create a feeling of ‘shared ownership’. But this researcher worked with the NGO-Team, not with refugees in the first place. The overall setting blocks participation by refugees in shared ownership, even in the context of academic research! But there is a caveat to this. It concerns the attitude but maybe also the procedure – this is the question of access. In social science fieldwork it is a well-known strategy to volunteer – in an organization or informal group – to get access into privileged or otherwise restricted areas. Gemma finds it 'troubling'. She sees an imbalance here between a pre-occupation with access to voices and data – also in academia, where in the end 'we need to be able to write the most convincing argument'.  She adds that 'solidarity and reciprocity should be the priority regardless of what this might mean for ‘findings’. Gemma demands here a research ethics that is aware of higher values than to mainly capitalize on quick societal extractions. Critical empathy shall produce a sort of knowledge that might pass the reality check less biased, in the end.

Gemma and Liska provide an inspiring and, for the serious reader, at times uneasy reflection on what it means to deal with social beings in social research, in person, and in publications as well.


Martin Wolf