Each time I mention the fact I do field research in Afghanistan, and hang out with “warlords” and commanders, the same questions systematically pop up: What’s doing field research in Afghanistan like? What do you do all day? How do you get in touch with these guys? And each time, I kind of draw blank. I don’t really know what to say. I find myself saying things like: “I don’t know, I make some phone calls, schedule interviews, grab a cab, and that’s it you know.” Well, apparently “that’s it,” doesn’t quite describe what it’s like. Go figure. I try to convince myself that people ask the wrong questions, but quite frankly, they’re legit. People have no clue what spending time in Afghanistan is like, and they can’t really be blamed for that. It’s really hard for people to grasp. It’s also hard for me to describe. Maybe it is because barbed wires, AK47s, and sand bags become your reality after a while. Sadly enough, you don’t even see them anymore. Or maybe you do, but you unconsciously try to ignore what’s going on around you. In any case, this is not what fieldwork is all about. In a lot of ways, doing fieldwork is about commonsense (supposedly the most fairly distributed thing in the world, right?); it’s about assessing the risks, and adapting to unfamiliar settings.
Well, a few days ago, as I was reading a book on counterinsurgency in Iraq, I came across the description of something the authors of that book call the Rabbit-Hole Matrix. I immediately thought to myself: “this is it, this is what I do, this is what doing fieldwork is like.” At least it answers some of the questions people have about doing fieldwork in a place like Afghanistan. J. B. Walker – a collective pen name of a group of former U.S. Army soldiers – describes the Rabbit-Hole Matrix as “a commonsense template that simply adds some logic to that feeling in the skin” (36). I see it as a first necessary step to gather information: a who’s who of the environment you’re trying to comprehend.
“The Rabbit-Hole Matrix is a simple template of making profiles of people we meet based on a set of criteria. We begin to see them in relation to one another and to the neighborhood, in shifting alliances. A simple database made it possible to collate the many stories and gauge their credibility. It helped us cross-reference people and their affiliations, adding location grids and sometimes photos, email addresses, or phone numbers. It is an imperfect picture of course. But the steady accretion of marginal information eventually adds up to something greater than the sum of its parts.
With this semblance of a logical system in hand, it becomes possible to see the affiliations, sectarian identities, and political and clan loyalties behind the stories – knowledge that exposes their inherent biases. It made our lives easier and our work that much better, and even had a time along the way.
The essential criterion for inclusion in the Rabbit-Hole Matrix was simple: Is the house worth visiting another time, and is there a possibility of actionable intelligence? In more concrete terms: Does he have great stories? Do the stories have any relevance and does he have a good grasp of the events that surround him? If “yes,” do a quick profile of the person or family (37).”
Of course, doing fieldwork and doing counterinsurgency are two VERY different things. Yet, there are some similarities. I remember spending hours in my room in Kabul, printing pictures, reading biographies, and trying to figure out how the different pieces of the puzzle fit together (de facto my own Rabbit-Hole Matrix is nothing more than a compilation of a few excel documents, pictures and bios). Unfortunately, Google is not very helpful. Most of the guys I end up meeting with are nowhere to be found on the internet. Besides, I don’t always know who I’m going to meet with before I actually do. I usually know he (most of my interviewees are male) had some connections with X, Y or Z during the Jihad, and might have interesting things to say. But most of the time, that’s about it (at least at first). So I end up spending most of the interview trying to figure out who he really is, and what he has actually been doing in the past 30 years, before I can even ask questions that have some relevance to my research. So, like counterinsurgents, I basically want to figure out whether or not “the house [is] worth visiting another time.” I want to know whether or not the guy has “great stories,” and whether or not he is likely to share those with me one day.
At this stage I still need to “gauge their credibility;” make sure their stories check out. It is really hard to know whether or not someone is telling you the truth. Yet, I think that building my own Rabbit-Hole Matrix helps me understand my interviewees’ affiliations and agendas. I then read the same articles and book chapters again and again, talk to more people, and those names and events I knew nothing about not so long ago eventually start to really resonate; everything starts making some sense. A safe bet is that everybody has an agenda. I, as a social scientist, have an agenda; so do the “warlords” who accept to meet with me and show me around. But is that really a problem as long as I’m aware of it and acknowledge it? I think it’s just a win-win situation. Figuring out what the truth is might not always be the most interesting finding. Field research is also about understanding the environment as a whole. Everything I see or do while I’m there becomes part of my data collection process. As a friend and fellow student of Afghan “warlords” once wrote on this blog:
I also began to absorb everything around me as “data” rather than only focus on the analysis of my subjects. I paid attention to their use of language, their mannerisms, the physical environs in which we met, the social dynamics that surrounded our conversations.
I couldn’t agree more, and I can’t wait to go back…
PS: For those who want to know more about the Rabbit-Hole Matrix, this is the book I’m talking about. It’s very entertaining, and based upon real war experience – besides, all the authors’ proceeds to charities.