Doctoral Training Workshop: Negotiating Politics and Policy – Exploring the challenges of research in international contexts, 9th September 2015

By Oliver Walton

In a recent article in Review of African Political Economy, Mark Duffield (2015) reflects on a re-visit to the fieldsite in Sudan where he did his doctoral fieldwork in the early 1970s. The article contrasts the research environment of his early visit – which was characterised by an inability to communicate with the outside world, a lack of interest in connecting research or the research process to policymakers, and few administrative hurdles from universities – with the current landscape for international research where the impact agenda, ‘territorial risk avoidance’, and the emergence of new technologies loom large. Duffield concludes that current pressures on researchers are undermining the space for ‘immersive’ research and leading to acceptance of a new state of affairs where ‘being in the world is no longer a requirement for generating knowledge of it’.

The current challenges facing doctoral researchers operating in international contexts were the focus of a workshop held at the University of Bath in association with the South West Doctoral Training Centre and the Centre for Development Studies. The workshop began with a presentation from Geof Wood who focused on the difficulties of carving out and maintaining independent academic space for policy research.

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The next three sessions were focused around doctoral students’ recent experiences of conducting or preparing for fieldwork.

In the first panel Sarah Marriot and Kate Pincock provided two highly reflective and personal accounts of the tensions surrounding the researcher’s exit from the field and the process of negotiating relations with research participants and gatekeepers. Both papers – based on projects in South Sudan and Tanzania – highlighted two often under-explored components of international research – the emotional and human impact of fieldwork on the researcher, and the centrality of human relations and trust. Both papers also raised questions about the way in which new technologies were facilitating links with research participants beyond the time spent in the field. The papers showed that while the expansion of social media and mobile telephony provides positive opportunities for participants to keep in touch and validate findings, it also raises new challenges relating to researchers’ responsibilities towards participants.

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In the second panel, Lydia Medland, Abid Shah and Ben Tantua examined questions around the role of language, conflict and insecurity in relation to international research. Lydia Medland’s paper argued that the benefits of language-learning in preparation for fieldwork go beyond the simple business of conducting interviews, and can present a range of benefits at various stages of the research. Even a small degree of language learning can reap small, sometimes quite intangible gains in contextual understanding and access. Tantua and Shah’s presentation questioned the suitability of traditional university ethical research frameworks in insecure and violent settings, and assessed the pros and cons of a more flexible and informal approach.

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After lunch the focus switched to the growing pressures on researchers to produce research that influences policy. Sarah Peck and Rowan Poppellwell – two students with ESRC collaborative studentships – used incidents within their research process to highlight tensions that can emerge when conducting research in collaboration with policy and practice-oriented organisations. Discussion focused on the contested meaning of collaboration, students’ efforts to navigate their relationships with academic and policy partners, and on the need for universities, funders and research partners to establish better mechanisms for managing tensions.

The final session began with reflections from three CDS-staff members about their own experiences of navigating the research-policy nexus. Sarah White and James Copestake both highlighted the frustrating and chaotic nature of the policy process the need for researchers to remain realistic about generating influence. Jason Hart emphasised the ethical and political responsibilities for academics to maintain a critical stance towards the policy process, and stressed the importance of maintaining a focus that lay beyond the narrow goal of influencing policy.

The workshop ended with reflection on the strategies needed to overcome some of the challenges raised. Key themes in this discussion included the increasingly hostile attitude towards ‘development-related’ research from some governments in the Global South, and the need for both preparedness and flexibility in responding to contexts that are often difficult to read and volatile.

Further reflections on the day can be found on Twitter at #negotiatingpolitics.

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