Deciphering Syria

AS THE CONFLICT DEEPENED in Syria post-2011, Kheder Khaddour turned to reporting and research. His meticulous work quickly surfaced as offering some of the most valuable and durable insights, standing out in a flood of instant commentary. A scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, he focuses on civil-military relations and social boundaries.

Kheder, what are the different phases of your research process?

First, I usually start a research project independently from any specific publication format—whether a think tank briefing, an academic paper or an essay. I let the research question take shape, develop my hypothesis and arguments, before the constraints of a particular format come in to curb my thoughts. Format should be a means, not an end.

The research question emerges in the course of data collection. This process, in my case, takes approximately four months, during which I investigate different aspects of the research topic. I put together a questionnaire organized around “units of analysis” (wahidat al-tahlil) in order to map out the field of study and chart a number of landmarks. For example, a unit of analysis may unpack a political institution, in which case I will look into membership, from senior to lower ranks; the social environment of members (family ties, living conditions, habits, etc.); and whatever data sets describe the institution itself, such as its geographic realities and organizational makeup, or the areas of overlap with other institutions. Later on, to formulate the research question itself, I look at the intersection of these variables.

If the initial focus is geographic rather than institutional—a neighborhood or city, say—the process is similar but draws on somewhat different variables. On one side, I will explore the population’s social and political fabric—local institutions, local elites, channels for political representation, etc. On the other, I will survey the context in which such social and political life takes place—locations, historical legacies, population size, economic activities, and so on. All the information I gather goes into an Excel spreadsheet, which distributes it into relevant categories while bringing it all together in one place. Whenever possible, I collect data through my own fieldwork; alternatively, I use a network of trusted contacts to do so.

The mapping phase leads to the research question, which typically comes into light in ways that are unpredictable and hard to systematize. The process is chaotic but vibrant, involving a back-and-forth movement between a range of conversations with colleagues, people living in the field and other sources of inspiration, and reading-up on relevant literature. These conversations and readings allow me to test the validity of hypotheses as I form them. Basically I stage a dialogue between these various voices, the end-result of which is a solid conceptual framework that contains several hypotheses supported by empirical data.

In what way does the region’s political culture, in connection to information collecting and research, affect your fieldwork? 

In the Arab world, the process of acquiring information is broadly understood as a security breach rather than as knowledge generation. People, by and large, ascribe information a security-value (amn) rather than a knowledge-value (alim). “Research” and “search” are conflated in one word (bahth) that literally means looking for something that is hidden. Research, also, is often interpreted as a violation of privacy, placing the researcher in front of a wall he can only overcome through the delicate process of trust-building. This is one, essential thing that cannot be learned at school; it depends on our individual personality and sensitivity, and will only improve with experience.

Does the fact that you are from the region in question play a role, positive or negative, in your research?

Being Syrian does not, in and of itself, grant any particular legitimacy to my research on Syria specifically or the Arab world generally. Not all Syrians can be researchers, and not all researchers on Syria must be Syrian. Simply, the process through which a native researcher conducts research on his own society is different from that of a foreigner. To keep my work as objective as possible, I strive to reach beyond my immediate social networks (relatives, friends from same locality, etc.), and make a point of looking even at familiar phenomena through new lenses.

Paradoxically, the greatest challenge in breaking out of your own bubble is, precisely, the rest of the world. Syrians and outside observers expect you to speak and write from a narrow perspective, as if you had to represent a specific constituency, and could only be interested in, and qualified to discuss, things closest to home. Therefore, the challenge is twofold: on one side, you must make the decision to step over your social boundaries; on the other, you must also surmount external forms of stigma that constantly push you back within those very same confines.

Enjoy the occasional, thoughtful boost to your output!

Illustration credit: Enigma plugboard by Wikipedia / licensed by CC. 

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Robin Cole-Hamilton says:

    A valuable insight in many ways. Thank you. However, the sentence: “To keep my work as objective as possible, I strive to reach beyond my immediate social networks (relatives, friends from same locality, etc.), and make a point of looking even at familiar phenomena through new lenses.” surely raises some questions about just how objective that work will actually be. “Striving to reach beyond..” is well short of eliminating altogether the potential bias (confirmation or otherwise) of family and friends.

    1. Jérôme says:

      I don’t believe in objectivity. You can have lot of different sources when doing massive researches on a subject, you have always, in the end, your own view on a situation. This view is then reflected in how you write or express yourself, consciously or not. But this is just my opinion. And this article is, indeed, very interesting.

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