You Can’t Always Get What You Want…

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.

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About Afghanopoly

I am an Assistant Professor of peace and conflict studies at Radboud University's Centre for International Conflict Analysis and Management (CICAM). I completed my PhD in Political Science at Northwestern University and Sciences Po under the supervision of Will Reno and Bertrand Badie. Among other things, I teach students about the politics of international intervention in Afghanistan and elsewhere. My research focuses on the political strategies that Afghan strongmen use to consolidate and legitimize their authority. I am particularly interested in how these actors manage to conduct their own forms of international relations. My field research brings me in contact with Afghan community leaders, politicians, diplomats and foreign military officers.
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4 Responses to You Can’t Always Get What You Want…

  1. The persistence and tenacity of field researchers ultimately gives us all the data that we can then ponder and discuss. It’s a noble cause, and is much appreciated

  2. Durkheim says:

    “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 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.”
    Beautifully put. If only the those in the Pentagon had the same mentality and perseverance as yourself. You are an inspiration. Please keep on posting!

  3. Haroon says:

    In present situation, for a foriegner researcher it might be easier to accomplish a field reaserch by realizing interviews with different actors, than an Afghan. In fact, the actual powerful key players « Warlords », try to legitimate and reinforce their prensence and positions (who have been supported by Western Military since October 2001) to the people outside thraough international medias and specialists of Afghanistan. In the other words, former « Warlords » try to present themselves « innocent » and the saviors of Afghan Nation from foriegn invasion. Each actor tries to put all responsibilites to rival factions or extern elements for the past conflicts. They know that they can’t lie to Afghans because the Afghan society codes permit them to know each other better than anybody else. Or, each clan knows the local good and the bad guy of the other one even in distant provinces. Furthermore, for Afghans who have suffered from past conflicts there is no need to explain them who these criminal « Warlords » disguised today into « democrats » are ? Because almost all Afghans were victims of past conflicts one way or the other. Today if they accept these Western imposed criminal and corrupted actors because they are tired of three decades of conflicts and also they don’t want the return of Talibans. However this is a hard task to discover the reality and find appropriate anwsers to the hypothesis of a reaserch project.
    “What do you owe those who take time from their busy lives to teach you?”
    To transmit the reality from the past to the futur generation, by realizing neutral, sientific and useful analysis and research projets, is a great, worthwhile and remarkable gift to all afghan people. Keep on your good job.

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