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…

The melody of the interview

THERE IS A MUSICALITY to all interviews, big and small. The tempo will change and the conversation may explore various tones, but a good discussion is one where the rhythm never really breaks, and phrases respond to each other harmoniously. Even a vivid debate, or a tough negotiation, can become a pleasant and fulfilling experience, when different people playing different tunes are brought into accord by some…

Interview takeaways and throwaways

YOU’LL OFTEN BE ASKED about the “takeaways” of a particular meeting. In other words: what was new and meaningful, to you or to a broader conversation occurring on a given topic? What are you going home with, and might want to share with others? The query also suggests that there is much to cast aside…

Reconciling conflicting narratives

LEBANON IS A COUNTRY POLARISED between conflicting narratives if there ever was one. Most often, Lebanese genuinely entertain perfectly incompatible views of any meaningful event, to the point of making it difficult to establish facts or forge an opinion of one’s own. As the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst in Lebanon, Sahar al-Atrache has been…

Building your analysis on & through fieldwork

AS YOU CARRY OUT INTERVIEWS, bear in mind that your fieldwork is geared toward developing your analysis of a particular topic. Sometimes, we know what that topic is from the outset, and structure the fieldwork accordingly. Oftentimes, however, fieldwork produces insights into topics that we were not pursuing deliberately, and nonetheless impose themselves upon us….

Note taking and sharing

IF YOU THINK that you must type notes because you’ve had a few meetings, you’re wrong: we have meetings because we need notes. Our analysis is built not on impressionistic sentiments and recollections, but on a more tangible basis, which is the raw material of our craft: interview transcripts.  Without them, you’ll remain vague and shallow….

Introducing yourself when starting fieldwork

REACHING OUT to unknown people may be hard in ordinary circumstances. As we wade into an entirely new area of research—which typically, to prove interesting, must be removed from our social comfort zone—it can be daunting. In practice, though, it’s really just a matter of finding where to start. Just like a conversation may naturally flow…