Your information diet

MOST OF US only have ourselves to blame as we complain about information overload, and then go on information binging. The explosion of media platforms and communication channels is, by no means, an unsolvable problem. Consuming information in more discriminating, purposive ways must start with each one of us clarifying what, after all, is this information’s…

Asking questions

THE FIRST QUESTION many of us ask ourselves, when we set out to conduct fieldwork on a new topic, is “what on earth am I going to ask?” Meeting people is often inhibiting, because we don’t quite know how to start the conversation. Defaulting to small talk about the weather has thus become standard practice…

Documentation & sourcing

IN THE INTERNET AGE, desk research would seem like the easiest thing: aren’t unfathomable amounts of information instantly available at our fingertips? Yet the surplus of digital information in fact raises serious challenges: besides its sheer, overwhelming volume, much of this material is incomplete, poorly structured and unverified, making for an open-ended process of ploughing…

Treading the Iraqi minefield

FOR OVER TWO DECADES, Loulouwa Al Rachid has carried out groundbreaking fieldwork in Iraq, mostly in highly adverse circumstances: the grinding authoritarianism and grueling economic sanctions of the 1990s; the build-up to and aftermath of the U.S. invasion of 2003; the ensuing civil war; all the way up to the recent struggle to reclaim territory…

Fieldwork under threat

SECURITY ISSUES are the Cinderella of field-based research, with organizations tending to gravitate toward either severe neglect or over-the-top fanfare—with advisors, trainings, forms, processes and procedures creating the appearances of full control, when no such thing is possible. Security policies often verge on the absurd: embassies write off whole areas as “red zones” when there…

Professional Kung Fu

PROFESSIONAL RELATIONS are a martial art. They involve a sequence of well-rehearsed, standardized moves, in which action and reaction appear logically, predictably related. As in old-style Kung Fu movies, they follow each other in a quick but iron-clad choreography, seemingly designed to go on endlessly. Professional encounters won’t knock you out cold, but they often…

The rookie researcher’s check-list

SETTING OFF on your first research project—or, for that matter, on any new one—likely will create some sense of confusion. You face a topic that, by definition, you don’t know much about, along with inevitably high expectations regarding outcomes. At some stage, you’ll have to know the issue inside out. For now, mostly, you draw…

Growing your network

ONE OF THE GREATEST NETWORKERS EVER, George Soros, is famously said to have declared that “networking is not working.” This possibly apocryphal quote papers over a fundamental truth regarding our professional interactions: very little comes from just meeting people and chatting with them, unless the effort is constructed as an investment. We’ve all been to…

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…

In the data wasteland

EVERYTHING IS DATA: from accurate figures to impressionistic narratives, through to rumors and plain lies, which carry information on the people articulating them. The issue with data is that, precisely because it is ubiquitous, it forms an incoherent slush until organized into something recognizable. Its analytical value will depend on two variables in particular: volume…

The cut-off moment

A WIDESPREAD MISTAKE, in the field of research as in many others, is going overboard: extending a task beyond the point where work is productive. Many analysts get lost in never-ending interviews, revealing more and more facets of an issue without truly shedding light on it, because the analysis itself never gets written. Others continue…

Pitching yourself

IT WOULD BE LOVELY if the purpose of an encounter defined it. Let’s say you must engage some official in a ministry to discuss a technical issue you have good reason to raise. From there, an apparently straightforward meeting can go any number of ways: the person you’re talking to can lock you out, pull you…