Janine A. Clark and Francesco Cavatorta, eds., Political Science Research in the Middle East and North Africa: Methodological and Ethical Challenges (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit this volume?
Janine A. Clark (JAC): My primary motivations for editing this book arose from the needs and struggles of students in my qualitative research methods graduate course. First of all, I wanted a way to address students’ questions and anxieties about conducting field research for the first time. Secondly, reflecting upon my own field research experiences, I noted that standard textbooks rarely address the challenges of doing field research or provide “contingency” plans when implementing your research method is not quite as smooth as you had anticipated or hoped for. In class, I dealt with these issues by inviting guest researchers and asking them to speak about their research experiences, including the problems or obstacles they encountered and how they overcame them. I hoped that these talks would make the thought of field research less intimidating and, at the same time, show students how to think outside the box. These guest talks became the inspiration for the book.
Francesco Cavatorta (FC): I have been teaching methodology modules to graduate students for a number of years, and I always found it somewhat frustrating that there were no textbooks dealing specifically with the practicalities of fieldwork, particularly in difficult contexts. There are a lot of researchers working on and in the Middle East, and we thought that having contributors describing how they conducted fieldwork and what kinds of lessons they had learned would be tremendously useful for young researchers going into the field for the first time. These insights are for more experienced researchers as well because we need to be reminded constantly of the challenges researchers and scholars face, especially in the field. We also wanted to ensure that as researchers, we are self-reflective about the fieldwork we carry out and the methodologies we choose. We are very grateful that all contributors were as enthusiastic about the project as we were.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
JAC: The book addresses a broad range of field research methods, ranging from elite interviewing to ethnography to experimental research. It also looks at doing research in specific contexts, such as religiously-charged authoritarian settings like Iran, and at the challenges these contexts may or may not present to field-researchers. Finally, it addresses some of the ethical questions that researchers conducting research in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region may also confront. The book is primarily written for "outsiders" who conduct research in the region, so some of the ethical issues we deal with in the book concern a researcher’s (often changing) positionality.
FC: The book is a methods textbook, and it therefore engages with the expanding literature on methodology in the social sciences and the role of ethics in conducting fieldwork. The chapters examine different methodological issues and how researchers face them when confronted with the difficulties one finds in the field. The book deals with issues such as the obstacles of conducting fieldwork in authoritarian states, how to conduct interviews with "problematic" actors, how to code qualitative research, or how to deal with positionality.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
JAC: The book builds on the research experiences that underlie almost all of my publications, and I talk about them in the book. More directly, it builds upon an article I published as part of a symposium I organized in PS: Political Science and Politics in 2006 that examined field research methods.
FC: For me this project was a clear departure from my previous research projects. I was always interested in the methodological and ethical issues surrounding research in the Middle East and North Africa, but I never thought I would be working on a project attempting to bridge how we are taught methodological work should be carried out in ideal conditions and the reality of actually carrying out research in the field, where all sorts of surprises—both positive and negative—can throw the best laid plans off.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
JAC: We hope that both new researchers and established researchers will read the book and find it useful when conducting or teaching field research methods, both in the MENA region and elsewhere. Researchers at very different stages in their careers wrote these chapters, so we feel their stories will provide something for everyone. Also, while the book focuses on experiences in the Middle East and North Africa, it has lessons for researchers conducting research in other parts of the globe. Certainly, many contributors to the book point out the commonalities that lie between the MENA and elsewhere when it comes to the practicalities (and intricacies) of conducting field research.
FC: Our hope is that young researchers thinking about carrying out research in the Middle East and North Africa will read this before actually setting off for the field. We also hope that more established researchers will read it because there are lessons we should be reminded of and we can all learn from, as the field constantly changes just as our research institutions do. For instance, there are today ethical constraints that universities’ ethical boards have put in place that were not there just a few years ago. I also think that despite the volume being focused on the Middle East and North Africa, there are lessons and insights that are be useful for all researchers working on the global south as well as established democracies. How one deals with security services is not only a matter for researchers working in authoritarian countries, but also for those examining sensitive issues in established democracies too, as the chapters on encountering the security state highlight. The book is designed for researchers based in Western institutions, and maybe that is a weakness in some ways, but I think that local researchers are much more aware of the problematic nature of field work in their own environments.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
JAC: I have recently begun a new research project examining LGBTQI+ activism in the MENA region. It is still in its early stages, and I am presently conducting interviews with activists.
FC: I am working on a collaborative project dealing with the way in which Islamist and Salafi parties think about economic policy-making and the relationship between neo-liberalism and Islamism. The project examines Islamists’ electoral manifestos to analyze such a relationship.
J: The book has a section dealing with ethical challenges. How important do you think ethical concerns should be for researchers?
JAC: I believe that ethical issues are paramount. Field research rarely presents clear cut ethical issues that are black or white; in reality, you are continuously confronted with the color grey—with questions that fall outside the approvals required by institutional review boards. These issues in the grey zone are crucial to the safety of those with whom we work. Ethical considerations are thus at the heart of research design, the field research itself, and the writing of the final research product. Yet, unfortunately, as researchers we are often ill-prepared for them. We hope that our book rectifies this to a degree.
FC: I think that ethical considerations should be of utmost relevance for all those deciding to investigate and explain social phenomena. When it comes to our region of interest, I believe that we should discuss how to behave ethically with the “populations” we engage. Equally important is the discussion on ethical boards at our research institutions, and how they can create obstacles for fieldworkers by requiring forms and declarations that are completely unsuitable for the environments in which we operate, putting at risk groups and individuals whose help we count on to carry out our work.
Excerpt from the Book:
Through the contributions of scholars—political scientists and other social scientists asking politically relevant questions and, importantly, using shared methods—who have conducted field research in the region and have first-hand experience of life in MENA countries, this volume offers an important guide to young academics on how to conceive and carry out their research projects. At the same time the topics in the book provide a useful refresher to more established scholars, so that their methodological training and ethical considerations keep pace with novel approaches, changing obstacles, and the institutional constraints of an increasingly neoliberal third-level education.
What sets this volume apart from all others thus is its focus on the methodological “lessons learned” from the contributors’ firsthand experiences. Each chapter deals with the challenges of implementing qualitative and quantitative methods in the field, the real-life obstacles encountered, and the possible solutions to overcoming them. While some of the chapters focus on specific countries because of their almost unique set of challenges—Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel/Palestine— the volume is not meant to cover countries per se. Rather, it is the themes that are more significant; the country from which the experiences are drawn is, to an ex- tent, incidental. This should not suggest that the country context is irrelevant and that doing research in Jordan rather than Egypt amounts to the same experience, as this is patently not the case. The book, however, deals with crosscutting challenges and opportunities that can then be declined differently according to both time and space. This volume is an important companion book to more standard methods books, which focus on the “how to” of methods but are often devoid of any real discussion of the practicalities, challenges, and common mistakes of fieldwork. The “field” rarely offers ideal conditions for implementing field research techniques, and standard textbooks do not talk about the challenges of working under the possible, if not probable, surveillance of internal security, the various challenges related to gender, or the ethical gray zones not covered by research ethical protocols.
While the nonexceptionalism of the region should be highlighted as a starting point, there is no doubt that there are specific themes that run through the different contributions deserving special attention. Such themes (research in authoritarian contexts, qualitative versus quantitative methods, positionality, gender, protests and conflicts and finally ethics) are discussed separately in this introduction, but it becomes rapidly clear that they are in fact intertwined to make the fieldwork experience much more complex than one would glean from methodology books. In this book, the chapters are assigned to three separate parts—context, methods, and ethics—and the parts have a considerable degree of internal coherence, with contributions speaking to each other. However, it should be noted that the chapters also tend to overlap across parts, which cannot be and should not be fully separated. While, as noted above, we have highlighted certain contexts that we believed would be of particular interest to readers because of their (at least presumed) uniqueness, the issues raised in the part on context overlap with those in both the methods and the ethics parts. The “ethical dimension” of studying the MENA emerges as a clear concern for scholars and the institutions they work for. It is for this reason that each theme is also explored through the ethical challenges that it gives rise to and how to best contend with them.