After one month of striding along the muddy streets of Kabul, it is about time to reflect on the benefits of doing field research in Afghanistan. I have been coming here for almost four years and it has always been both very exciting and very frustrating. Looking at Afghanistan past events and local elites’ political strategies is as fascinating as it is complicated. It demands patience and perseverance, but it eventually pays off. If nothing worth having comes easy, how does one manage to get politically sensitive information?
For starters, one has to learn who is who, beyond the main political players. And who did what. It takes a lot of time, especially since there is almost no detailed account of what went on in Afghanistan during the 1990s. Besides, you hear “conflicting and competing explanations” and need to triangulate your data. It is sometimes really hard to figure who is telling the truth and who isn’t. Fortunately as time passes by, things start to make sense, people’s stories begin to sound familiar, and you come to realize that you know much more than you ever thought you would. You start asking questions about very specific events and become able to identify when someone is not being totally honest with you. Of course it does not work 100% of the time, but asking very specific and sensitive questions you already know the answer to is, in my view, a good way of making sure your interlocutor is being honest with you. If he isn’t, there is not much you can do besides trying harder. And discourse analysis, of course, which might also be very enlightening.
Spending a lot of time on the field – about 9 months altogether – helped me understand the whole environment; it made me see things more clearly, in a better and more comprehensive manner; it helped me understand what matters and what doesn’t. Besides, it is important for networking and confidence building to show that you are here long-term, coming back year after year. Bonding with your interviewees is critical in a suspicions prone environment like Afghanistan. The people who helped me the most here are Afghans whom I managed to bond with and who accepted to meet with me again and again, year after year. “What do you owe those who take time from their busy lives to teach you?” asked Dipali Mukhopadhyay in a comment to the “Field Research” section description. I guess we owe them a lot. And that’s a problem because it raises ethical issues. As much as we owe those people, it should not alter our analysis. What we write certainly affects our relationships with people who, over time, have helped us a lot, and whom we may have developed a friendship with. In some cases, it could even endanger their security. It is our responsibility to ensure that our actions won’t put people’s lives at risk. As researchers, ethics and responsibility must be constant concerns.