This piece analyses the main challenges encountered during the ‘Countering Radicalisation through Lifestories’ research project – which ran from 2016 to 2019 and involved the collection of roughly 300 interviews – and provides mitigation strategies that researchers could employ while engaging in collecting empirical data. The region analysed as part of this project was South Eastern Europe, specifically: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Northern Macedonia, Montenegro, the Republic of Kosovo, and Serbia. The challenges field researchers face while working on subjects relating to (non) violent extremism have been previously published in an in-depth report and policy brief entitled Countering and Preventing (Non) Violent Extremism: Research and Fieldwork Challenges.
This blog post aims to address the following questions: how viable is it to conduct evidence-based research on (non)violent extremism and prevention? What could be the possible impacts of such research on researchers? And what are the key preparatory strategies for researchers engaged in the collecting of interviews?
For any researcher, the conducting of fieldwork on violent extremism trends and prevention is not barrier-free,and has been shown to be highly demanding, stressful, and exhausting. The common challenges awaiting researchers in the field largely centre around barriers to accessing the selected community, associated security risks, the politicisation of (non) violent extremism, collaboration with local and international actors, methodological choices, gender and work-life balance, and trauma. However, despite these significant challenges, by engaging potential mitigation strategies before entering the data collection stage, it is possible to successfully lead the research process while preventing potential harmto both the field research team and participants.
One of the common challenges faced in the field is gaining access to the selected communities. The project showed that the life story interview method, combined with the snowball sampling technique, is a best-fit strategy for gaining accessto a community. Lifestories are used to uncover voices that are excluded and/or silenced from official historical records, and thus hold the potential to deepen our understanding of marginalised groups, while offering nuanced perspectives. Snowball sampling is a proven technique in identifying individuals in the so-called culturally sensitive recruitment strategy of the more vulnerable population groups – oft-called ‘hard to reach populations’- who would be more likely to participate, as it relies on referrals from within community sources.
Collaboration can also facilitate access to the selected community. To ensure access to religious and far-right groups, it is necessary to collaborate with people embedded in civil society, universities, journalistic networks, workers at the governmental and municipal level, international organisations and bilateral representations, previous and running projects on the same theme, and national P/CVE coordinators. For effective communication and collaboration, it is beneficial to have researchers speaking the language of the selected community at the native level or even preferably someone from the same community. This insiders’ approach presents drawbacks as well. It may lead to researchers becoming too involved in the theme and with participants, potentially heightening participants’ expectations that their needs will be alleviated and increasing researchers’ workloads.
Nevertheless, sometimes collaboration attempts might not be enough to successfully remove obstacles to field access due to trust issues between the interviewees and the interviewer. In fact, researchers’ attempts at collaboration can be misunderstood in the field. To illustrate this type of mistrust, for instance, an interviewee asked me the following during the research: “...but, why do you want to know? Only state agents are interested in this topic.” To mitigate these types of challenges, researchers should first be empathetic, be transparent as to the aim of the research as much as possible, collaborate with gatekeepers, and leverage former relationships with locals.
Gender also plays a pivotal role in accessing the selected community, with female researchers in this case more likely to maintain frequent contact and provide data over time in comparison to male researchers. Attentiveness is required, so as to not reveal too many personal details to the interviewees, and countering discriminatory beliefs by utilising preventive techniques such as taking along a male gatekeeper and/or talking about their partner and children, which can assist in establishing trust. This would not only mitigate gender related challenges; it would also ensure the safety of the researcher and maintain the quality of the research.
Methodological choices employed in the field affect access to selected communities. While quantitative approaches may assist in understanding phenomena based on a large-N studies, they may also cause harm – especially when dealing with hard-to-reach populations and sensitive themes such as P/CVE. Therefore, it is of importance to refrain from using it as much as possible given that the attempt to employ multiple-choice questions can hamper access to affected communities and harm P/CVE programs and local communities in the long run. This approach may alienate the community. The set-up of the questions may cause them to perceive that their voices are unwanted. Instead, one should opt for ethnographic research methods to maximise utility.
In general, the researcher and the research subjects in the field should prioritise safety. The fear of reprisals, attacks, threats, blackmailing, manipulation, and exposure to arms were among the most common fears revealed during the fieldwork conducted in South Eastern Europe between 2016 and 2019. In the presence of such risks, it is possible that some researchers, as well as interviewees, might turn away from the study. To mitigate those security risks, several steps related to an interviewer’s safety can be taken online and during one-to-one meetings, including but not limited to avoiding closed and rural places as meeting points, having a trusted local companion during meetings, and paying attention to using protected online communication tools, like VPN services and a separate mobile, only intended for the research project. As for the local communities’ safety, ensuring the confidentiality of interviewees and keeping an eye on the authenticity of stories are of utmost significance.
The politicisation of (non)violent extremism can also pose threats that need to be dealt with at either the state or international levels. While researchers have no power to shift local or international discourses, assessing post-research politicisation, including unexpected scenarios, may assist the fieldwork process. For instance, access to far-right interviewees in Serbia has been difficult due to political influences, although this was not the case for reaching out to religious interviewees. This type of politicisation was also observed among some influential segments of the international community present in Serbia. This simply indicates the presence of a certain degree of information control regarding far right violent extremism in Serbia. This is done to minimise the public scrutiny of Serbia locally or internationally. The goal is to portray Serbia as a progressive and democratic actor combating religious violent extremism, rather than a source or host of far-right violent extremism.Due to the political agendas of the respective governments, there was also some degree of information control in Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and North Macedonia.
Work Life Balance
Finally, the workload of a field study can be much higher than that of conducting desk research. Most of the time, researchers must continue working after normal business hours. Furthermore, various health concerns - such as catching viruses frequently, catching urinary tract infections due to lack of sanitation, and inadequate treatment due to poor quality of health services - can be common during fieldwork. In addition, exposure to content in the particular field of P/CVE for a long period can be challenging for the mental health of researchers, something reported by former researchers during the fieldwork. For instance, a researcher became uneasy over dinner and had to leave because of a discussion on the ethics of eating meat and slaughterhouses, which he associated with an ISIS propaganda video showing prisoners as animals waiting to be slaughtered. Another researcher, on the other hand, shifted from watching online extremist propaganda to analysing court reports just to "clear the mind." Long-term exposure to stress is associated with poor health in terms of memory, cardiovascular, immune, gastrointestinal, neurohormonal, and musculoskeletal outcomes. Therefore, it is important to provide field researchers with regular debriefing opportunities and psychological support systems upon return, to diminish the risk of them experiencing PTSD, depression, or other physical diseases caused by stress.
While researching P/CVE is very difficult, this research project – which featured a heavy fieldwork component – shows that it is possible, if specific challenges are taken into account beforehand. Risks can be present within the following domains: accessing the targeted community, security, the politicisation of (non)violent extremism, collaboration with local and international actors, methodological choices, gender and work-life balance, and trauma. The research risks being halted if an appropriate fieldwork strategy is not formulated beforehand. To mitigate these risks, strategies are devised to assist researchers before entering the data collection phase, helping them to successfully spearhead the research process while preventing potential harm.
First and foremost, it is important to be flexible in the field and open to changes in schedule, while keeping in mind the following key preparatory strategies.
The access strategy is a combination of snowball sampling, and a life-story interview approach.
Collaboration can be ensured if researchers are empathetic, transparent about the aim of theirresearch, collaborate with gatekeepers, and are capable of leveraging former relationships.
Gender discriminatory beliefs can be tackled by taking along a male gatekeeper and/or talking about their partner and children.
Due to the potential alienation of participants and long-term harm to P/CVE research in the field, methodological choices may lean more toward qualitative in-depth interviews rather than quantitative questionnaire models. Safety steps to be followed include, but are not limited to, the following: avoiding closed and rural places as meeting points, having a trusted local companion during meetings, paying attention to using protected online communication like VPN services and a separate mobile, ensuring the confidentiality of interviewees, and maintaining the authenticity of stories. Preferably, it is worth participating in a Hostile Environment Awareness Training (HEAT) course prior to such fieldwork.
Politicisation of P/CVE can be taken into account by being aware of it, even though researchers lack control over ameloritating this effect in the field.
Work-life balance is key for field researchers. Because of this, providing regular debriefing opportunities during the field and psychological support systems upon return to diminish the risk of experiencing PTSD, depression, or other physical diseases caused by prolonged stress is recommended.
Written by: Dr. Arlinda Rrustemi
Arlinda Rrustemi is a researcher and lecturer on peace and conflict studies at the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies. She holds a PhD in Political Science from Leiden University, supported by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). She teaches on humanitarian intervention, peacebuilding, power instruments and multilateral organisations, and is involved in several research projects on peace infrastructures and countering radicalization.