No Country for Anthropologists? Four Dilemmas for Ethnographic Research in the Contemporary Middle East

Mustafa Akcinar, Daniele Cantini, Aymon Kreil, Shirin Naef, and Emanuel Schaeublin

This report was first published on the blog AllegraLab. Many thanks to the administrators of the blog who allowed us to reproduce it here.

The conference No Country for Anthropologists? Ethnographic Research in the Contemporary Middle East, which we co-organized and hosted at the University of Zurich in November 2018, addressed major concerns of all researchers working nowadays in this region. In many Arab countries the popular uprisings of 2011, with their reverberations across the entire region, were followed by an authoritarian backlash. As a result of this, research activities came under the increased scrutiny of politically repressive governments. Political polarization and military conflicts in numerous countries created new obstacles to conducting ethnographic fieldwork. The tragic case of the Italian PhD-candidate Giulio Regeni, who was brutally murdered in Egypt in 2016, remains in everybody’s thoughts. The issues at stake concern researchers working for universities situated both in the Middle East and elsewhere. Many face strong pressures to avoid sensitive topics and often almost insurmountable obstacles when it comes to obtaining research permits. In spite of these difficulties, the knowledge provided by ethnography, resulting from the immersion of researchers in different social contexts and a dialogic process of producing knowledge with local interlocutors, seems more needed than ever before. Ethnography opens up perspectives on the region that go beyond geopolitical speculations, statistical data, or decontextualized testimonies of the victims of repression and conflict.

The difficulties anthropologists face nowadays are hardly new, as Daniele Cantini recalled at the beginning of the conference, referring to Evans-Pritchard’s reluctance to undertake fieldwork in Arab countries given the constant risk of being perceived as a spy.[1] After Arab countries gained independence from direct colonial rule, the role of anthropologists became even more questionable in many places. In 1971, the Algerian government went as far as banishing the discipline, then labeled as a colonial relic, in favor of sociology as a tool for social engineering.[2] Furthermore, conflicts in the region in which Western powers were heavily involved fueled further defiance towards anthropologists from these countries. Nevertheless, there were also periods of opening. The 1990ies and the 2000s were times in which it was relatively easy to do research in many Arab countries—most notably in Egypt, which became an important hub for anthropologists working on the region. The first two years following the Egyptian revolution, from 2011 to 2013, constituted a climax for many anthropologists in Egypt, offering unprecedented freedom to conduct research on sensitive issues such as poverty and political structures. Against this background, the backlash after the military seized power again in 2013 appears even more brutal. Since then, similar authoritarian tendencies have gained momentum in other countries of the region, as for instance in Turkey. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, civil war has made fieldwork an almost impossible endeavor.

As a result, a number of academic discussions of fieldwork conditions in the Middle East have taken place in recent years. The conference No Country for Anthropologists? followed this trend. For three days, it gathered researchers working with ethnography from Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Sweden, Canada, the United States, Iran, Lebanon, Palestine, Pakistan and Turkey, offering a venue for lively discussions about the difficulties met while doing research in volatile contexts and the possible means to overcome them. A detailed report on the talks held at the conference has been published in the Bulletin of the Swiss Society for the Middle East and Islamic Cultures. Therefore, we do not intend to give a full account of these three days, but rather wish to share some of the reflections that resulted from our discussions during and after the conference. The diversity of the speakers—in terms of their institutional affiliations, seniority, objects of interest and theoretical orientations—allows us to articulate four core dilemmas for ethnographic work in the contemporary Middle East: What should we do when access to fieldwork locations becomes impossible? How can we maintain the autonomy of anthropology when facing the frequently stifling discourses on the Middle East dominating official politics and the media? How should we deal with physical threats on fieldwork sites? And lastly, how can we elaborate and cultivate a shared language with our interlocutors in the field?   

Four Dilemmas for Ethnography in the Contemporary Middle East

A first dilemma we face is writing about countries or regions to which anthropologists have almost no access anymore. Getting barred from places and being forbidden to meet interlocutors is obviously a serious problem for anthropologists. Yet how can we continue documenting the situation of people living in countries to which we have no direct contact to anymore?

Marina de Regt recounted how she attempted to keep contact with her interlocutors in the besieged city of Al-Hodeida during the war in Yemen. Relying on networks and background knowledge accrued during previous research projects, she was able to record local testimonies of the ongoing violence and situate them in a wider context. The necessity of describing the Yemeni situation from the point of view of the inhabitants seems beyond question. This is precisely the context-based knowledge that ethnography is particularly good at producing. The problem at stake equally concerns researchers carrying the nationality of the countries they study, as Ratiba Hadj-Moussa explained with reference to Algeria, where the politically agitated regions in the south have become more and more difficult to access. As security apparatuses and surveillance started to constitute a danger both for herself and her interlocutors, Hadj-Moussa resorted to using the telephone, Skype, Youtube, and Facebook in order to keep contact with her interlocutors, obtain insights into the current situation, and keep her observations and reflections going. “Fieldwork in ruins does not imply the ruin of the field”, as she put it. At the same time, the sheer impossibility to conduct fieldwork in such a scenario raises questions touching on the core of our discipline. This led Hadj-Moussa to ask whether—in such cases—we should speak of “ethnographies in the process of disappearing.”

Indeed, how can researchers experience sufficient “implication”[3] if they conduct fieldwork at a distance? Here, we refer to the kind of implication that forces us to rethink our research questions and our categories of analysis in order to adjust ourselves to the preoccupations of our interlocutors and the issues they are concerned with in their lives. Missing immersion could easily make us disregard the social context of the data we gather and lose perspective on the issues that we are studying. This risk becomes even more acute the longer we are absent from the place of inquiry.

A second dilemma we face, is dealing with topics that are at the core of intense geopolitical gambles or of heated debates on the national scene. How can anthropologists address the topics in question in a way that leaves enough autonomy for a distinctive anthropological take on a situation? In the current academic environment, researchers are under pressure to adjust their inquiry topics to policy objectives and to media debates. This problem is particularly striking when it comes to the Middle East, a region which easily elicits inflammatory debates in Europe.

Emanuel Schaeublin observed for instance that debates on Islamic charitable institutions in Palestine have come to be dominated by security concerns and allegations that they serve as conduits for “terrorist funding.” An ethnographic perspective on the issue makes it possible to situate the work of these institutions in people’s lived practice of Islamic giving and to show how pious generosity is part of everyday interactions between neighbors and relatives. Conducting research on Turkish mosques in Switzerland, Dominik Müller illustrated how Swiss media debates on the role of mosques in politically mobilizing Turks in the diaspora affected his relation to his interlocutors, and the vision they had of him as a non-Turkish researcher interested in their ways of practicing Islam. In Turkey itself, Leyla Neyzi, Hande Sarikuzu, Erol Saglam, and Mustafa Akcinar faced a variety of problems at different levels of the research process related to the suppressed role of minorities in the country’s narrative and the authoritarian turn of the government. As a result of political shifts, Shirin Zubair was compelled to leave Pakistan for some time and faced important career setbacks after attempting to teach gender theory in Lahore.

In such cases, the alternative either entails finding alternative venues for discussing the topic at stake from a different perspective or using these debates as a heuristic device to better understand certain situations and contexts. However, when the situation worsens and leads to violent confrontations, these ways of proceeding may not be a sufficient guarantee for the safety of researchers and of their interlocutors.

A third dilemma we face is how to behave in moments of intense polarization. When conflicts turn violent, trying to keep oneself apart from the fighting is not always easy during fieldwork. Circulating back and forth between adversaries for research purposes often becomes impossible. Furthermore, when words become weapons, there is no place for a neutral stance and refusing to take a side can appear as treachery, cowardice or criminal indifference.[4] Appeals within anthropology for “engagement” do not necessarily solve the issue either. Which side should one choose, and on which basis? Further, what consequences does this decision have for the analysis?

While conducting research on the independence movement in South Yemen during 2014 and 2015, Anne-Linda Amira Augustin witnessed the political turmoil of a country on the verge of war. In this situation, she felt compelled to go “to those [she] could trust” and to join the political movement she was studying as an activist.[5] This example is significative in our eyes, as it shows how violent events compel us to rely on existing networks to insure our safety and how this influences our take on the conflict. As for Younes Saramifar, his research focuses on Shia militias fighting in different parts of the Middle East. He conducted research on them as an ethnographer embedded in their military structures, occasionally observing open fighting. However, as Aymon Kreil asked when discussing his paper, in face of the sheer brutality and confusion of war, trying to infuse the violence and chaos of combats with meaning can appear as a specific kind of misrepresentation, especially if taking side signifies granting a sense of value to war.

Such choices are not self-evident and should not be seen as such. Even cases in which deciding what side to take may seem easy at first sight due to the shared set of values between “liberal-minded” researchers and their interlocutors, can be intricate. With regard to Egypt for instance, both the Egyptian political scientist Rabab El-Mahdi and Egyptian political activist Philip Rizk denounced the misappraisals provoked by identifying the liberal youth as the main actor of politics following the 2011 uprising, a tendency to which many researches were prone due to the master narrative of liberal democracy expanding to the world in different waves and to personal affinities alike.[6] Further, as Nida Kirmani noted during her presentation at the conference Pillars of Rule: The Writ of Nation-States and Dynasties in South Asia and the Middle East, also held in Zurich a few months later, the meaning of political causes can differ according to national contexts: denunciations of Islamophobia, for instance, which belong to the progressive agenda in Trump’s United States, are part of the ethnonationalist discourse in Pakistan, pushing for Indian Muslims to join the country.[7] Thus, the question remains open of how to position ourselves politically and analytically with a view to narratives and themes that take on very different kinds of political significance in different contexts. This situation appears to erode the common ground needed for an ethical and realistic kind of engaged anthropology.

A fourth dilemma we face is the possibility to elaborate a common language with our interlocutors.There are strong trends pushing for the development of collaborative anthropology, a way of doing inquiries in which our interlocutors, including local academic scholars and faculties, participate in all steps of the research process.[8] In her keynote address to the conference, Jessica Winegar emphasized the necessity of transcending the borders of the discipline by including a larger plurality of voices within it. In a similar vein, Shirin Naef argued for an anthropology dialoguing with debates going on within the Islamic tradition when studying bioethics in Iran, in line with recent arguments by Johan Rasanayagam.[9] These dialogues, which were mostly carried out with scholars of law, jurisprudence, theology and medicine, have largely shaped her sociological and anthropological enquiries and perspectives. However, as Naef reminded us, this endeavor also presents difficulties and challenges, such as misunderstandings and misrecognition, which are important to acknowledge in order to overcome them.   

Emilie Lund Mortensen argues for instance that her encounter with the Jordanian secret police, and the fear this encounter induced in her, increased her ability to enter into dialogue with her interlocutors. Working with Syrian refugees who feel that they are under constant surveillance and move through the city as invisibly as possible, Lund Mortensen’s direct experience of the secret police created a space of shared knowledge with her interlocutors. Lamia Moghnieh explained that the vocabulary of trauma, which came to define the experience of war in Lebanon in the eyes of external observers and NGO personnel, obscures moments of resistance or practical assessments of situations which are at the core of what she terms as “living-in-violence.”[10] Her insight compels us to reconsider the meaning of empathy, which tends to focus solely on suffering.[11] Understanding different sources of strength and resilience that our interlocutors tap into should equally be part of the endeavor. Moreover,the kind of intimacy necessary for collaboration can sometimes be difficult to bear psychologically, as Erol Saglam argued for the case of his fieldwork among Rumeyka-speakers in Northern Anatolia. Their language is a dialect of Greek but many of its speakers are strong supporters of chauvinistic trends of Turkish nationalism. Suspicion prevailed first towards him, as the practice of the local Greek dialect is stigmatized by its speakers themselves. Saglam’s problems during fieldwork remind of issues of “cultural intimacy” which anthropologists often face when trying to address topics about which their interlocutors reluctantly discuss with strangers.[12] In Saglam’s case, ethnography on the topic he chose meant to become intimate with people whose prospects about society were often diametrically opposite to his own. Eventually, leading back to the issue of polarization, Erol Saglam, Hande Sarikuzu and Anne-Linda Amira Augustin all raised the question of how to analytically deal with rumors relying on a violent othering of political adversaries which was shared by all their interlocutors and which made these stories credible in their eyes. Indeed, rumors help to learn about people in conflict and their “social imagination of violence,” as Sarikuzu phrased it, even if they are not a reliable source for corroborating factual evidence.

These difficulties highlight a core dimension of ethnographic research, the need to answer sometimes contradicting demands from university and from one’s own interlocutors. On one hand, we have to contribute through fieldwork to academic debates addressing questions in a jargon that is often far from the preoccupation and language of our interlocutors. On the other hand, once on site, we get entangled into networks of personal relations, which have other requisites, such as friendship or hospitality. This situation inevitably leads to “embarrassment,”[13] an uncomfortable position where researchers are torn between conflicting selves.[14] It is worth recalling that most of the time unethical or dangerous behavior by researchers arises from embarrassment. There is no plan B for failed fieldwork, as its success is one of the main elements on which anthropologists build their careers and by which they assess each other’s work. However, on a more positive note, embarrassment is also productive, as it is precisely what allows us to translate contexts and convey knowledge. How to maintain this tension throughout the dialogical process of ethnographic research in a way that does not do harm to any of the participants is perhaps the most important challenge.

Prospects for Anthropology in the Middle East

Bricolage is always part of ethnography and the neat research protocols in textbooks and research projects by definition never work as we are dealing with non-reproducible historical situations and not with laboratory experiments. This supposes a great deal of incertitude and the necessity of adapting methods to places and encounters.

The conference’s aim was not to provide ready-made solutions for ethnography in the Middle East. In any case, Jeffrey Sluka reminds us that“danger is not a purely ‘technical’ problem and is never totally manageable.”[15] Thus, David Shankland offered a rather grim portrayal of research prospects in the region. It seems that the willingness of British universities to deal with risky situations is diminishing, particularly when research involves undergraduate and graduate students working under the responsibility of their universities and their research supervisors. In response to pressures, Mehrdad Arabestani, who is based in Iran,emphasizes the possibility of “disidentification” from official discourses as a skill to conduct research, by which he means the strategical use of the ambivalence of official slogans and of the—occasionally contradictory—objectives set to researchers by state agencies. Nafay Choudhury explained how he tried to manage the deteriorating security conditions in Kabul by never announcing the times of his visits to the money exchangers who he was studying and by avoiding a regular and predictable rhythm of moving through the city in order to evade abduction attempts. Noah Arjomand on the other hand recounted how he was mixing profiles of different interlocutors when writing about Turkish and Syrian media workers, in order to avoid endangering them by making them too easy to identify.

Despite all these issues, ethnographic implication in the field remains indispensable for our work. Indeed, we never met someone who learned a language with audio methods. At a certain moment, you need to be compelled to practice the language, you need to be unsettled in your speaking habits, you have to experience yourself as someone else, be it pleasant or not, as another person, who is also part of the fieldwork. The good thing about ethnography is that it is flexible. The problems it raises are often indicative of wider political shifts in the world. Researchers unfortunately need to adapt to the violence accompanying these transformations, while striving to create the best possible conditions for ethnography in spite of the odds. [16] Reflecting on the conditions of doing fieldwork enables researchers to go beyond their individual cases, and to make historical and geographical continuities (and discontinuities, of course) visible in the work of anthropology more generally. Particularly when we need to make unsettling choices, being able to articulate them among peers seems to be far from anecdotical, and rather close to how anthropological knowledge is made.

[1] Edward Evans-Pritchard, “Some Reminiscences and Reflections on Fieldwork,” Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford 4, no. 1 (1973). Suspicions that ethnographers could be spies are recurrent in research in Middle Eastern countries. This is only partly explained by political tensions. For a more detailed discussion of Evans-Pritchard’s reluctance to do ethnography in Arab countries, see Paul Dresch, “Wilderness of Mirrors: Truth and Vulnerability in Middle Eastern Fieldwork,” in Anthropologists in a Wider World: Essays on Field Research, ed. Paul Dresch, Wendy James, and David Parkin (Oxford; New York: Berghahn, 2000), 113-14.

[2] Mohamed Madoui, “Les sciences sociales en Algérie: Regards sur les usages de la sociologie,” Sociologies pratiques, no. 15 (2007); Kamel Chachoua, “La sociologie en Algérie: Histoire d’une discipline sans histoire,” in Les Sciences sociales en voyage: L’Afrique du Nord et le Moyen-Orient vus d’Europe, d’Amérique et de l’intérieur, ed. Eberhard Kienle (Paris: Karthala, 2010), 141-42.

[3] Michel Agier, “Ce qui rend les terrains sensibles… et l’anthropologie inquiète,” in Terrains sensibles: Expériences actuelles de l’anthropologie, ed. Florence Bouillon, Marion Fresia, and Virginie Tallio (Paris: EHESS, 2005), 178-80.

[4] Abderrahmane Moussaoui, “Du danger et du terrain en Algérie,” Ethnologie française 31, no. 1 (2001); Kimberly Theidon, “Terror’s Talk: Fieldwork and War,” Dialectical Anthropology 26, no. 1 (2001).

[5] See also Anne-Linda Amira Augustin, “Rumours, Fears and Solidarity in Fieldwork in Times of Political Turmoil on the Verge of War in Southern Yemen,” Contemporary Social Science 13, no. 3-4 (2018): 7-8.

[6] Rabab El-Mahdi, “Orientalising the Egyptian Uprising,”  Jadaliyya (2011),; Philip Rizk, “2011 Is Not 1968: An Open Letter to an Onlooker on the Day of Rage,”  Mada Masr (2014).

[7] On the same topic, see also Rochelle Terman, “Islamophobia, Feminism and the Politics of Critique,” Theory, Culture & Society 33, no. 2 (2015).

[8] For a possible framework that will help collaborative research between anthropologists in Iran, see for example Shahnaz R. Nadjmabadi, “Conceptualizing Iranian Anthropology: Past and Present Perspectives” (London: Berghahn Books, 2009). Nadjmabadi also provides us with a history of Iranian anthropology and its development to date.

[9] Drawing his inspiration from the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas on the ethics of the Other, Rasanayagam argues for an anthropological knowledge founded on an ongoing conversation in a non-objectifying way with an Islamic tradition that observers should not endeavour to grasp as a whole. See, Johan Rasanayagam, “Anthropology in Conversation with an Islamic Tradition: Emmanuel Levinas and the Practice of Critique,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 24, no. 1 (2018).

[10] Lamia Moghnieh, “‘The Violence We Live In’: Reading and Experiencing Violence in the Field,” Contemporary Levant 2, no. 1 (2017).

[11] The concern with suffering arguably occupies a crucial position in recent anthropology and Western humanitarianism—on which, see Joel Robbins, “Beyond the Suffering Subject: Toward an Anthropology of the Good,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19, no. 3 (2013), and Didier Fassin, Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011). At the same time, recent ethnography on practices of giving in Egypt document how Islamic discourse is able to sustain an ethics of giving and mutuality that ascribes more importance to justice and duty than to empathy with those who suffer—see Amira Mittermaier, Giving to God: Islamic Charity in Revolutionary Times (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2019).

[12] Michael Herzfeld, Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics in the Nation-State (New York etc.: Routledge, 1997).

[13] Erving Goffman, “Embarrassment and Social Organization,” American Journal of Sociology 62, no. 3 (1956): 269-71.

[14] On the same topic, see also Christian Ghasarian, “Les désarrois de l’ethnographe,” L’Homme 37, no. 143 (1997): 192-93; Dionigi Albera, “Terrains minés,” Ethnologie française 31, no. 1 (2001). For an excellent ethnographic example of this tension, see Emilio Spadola, “Forgive Me Friend: Mohammed and Ibrahim,” Anthropological Quarterly 84, no. 3 (2011): 737–756.

[15] Jeffrey Sluka, “Participant Observation in Violent Contexts,” Human Organisation 49, no. 2 (1990): 124.

[16] Megan Steffen, “Doing Fieldwork after Henrietta Schmerler: On Sexual Violence and Blame in Anthropology,”  American Anthropologist Website (2017).

WS Methodological and Ethical Challenges in Qualitative Research Projects (Zurich, 10-11.5.2016)

Convenors: Dorothea Lüddeckens and Nina Rageth

Report by Sofia Bollo

Take eleven doctoral candidates based in Switzerland, Germany and Armenia, who work in disciplines ranging from anthropology, study of religion, archaeology, museum studies, gender studies, and Islamic and Middle Eastern studies. Add two external experts on qualitative research, Elisabeth Arweck (University of Warwick), Marta Trzebiatowska (University of Aberdeen). Weigh research doubts and mix them with the obstacles of doing fieldwork, making sure to be open for dialogue. The result is a fruitful context for analysing and discussing specific methodological and ethical challenges in qualitative research, with the goal of finding practical solutions to be applied in the respective doctoral projects.

The workshop started with a lecture by Elisabeth Arweck, who presented her vast expertise on qualitative research. Using examples from her own research projects, she offered her perspective and experience in dealing with important issues, such as finding a suitable object of research and facing challenges related to context. She also shared insights on methodological approaches, sample practices, path determination, gathering of participants and access to the field. Dr. Arweck also introduced the crucial discussion on ethics and on the emotional part of doing research.

Marta Trzebiatowska presented her biographic story during her qualitative research projects. Being of Polish origin and having studied Catholic Polish nuns for her doctoral dissertation, she identified several key issues with which a researcher is faced during the course of fieldwork. The issues she addressed were the vulnerability of a researcher in the field, the problem of being a ‘hostage’ of the field, and the difficulties in forming relationship with informants. Marta Trzebiatowska described how she dealt with conditional access to her field and with the constant questioning of one’s own place in it, explaining how fieldwork is made up of power relations. There are good tools and methods for operating in the field. Yet lack of control, as well as emotional and physical vulnerability, are sometimes inevitable. From her past projects, she learned that developing a deeper understanding of the field can turn emotional hardship into greater reflexivity.

Aymon Kreil also shared his experiences on imbalanced power relations in the field of research. In addition, he explained how, during fieldwork, the researcher must occasionally make decisions within seconds, while still considering ethical issues, cultural appropriateness, and cultural politeness. He believed that every problem encountered during fieldwork has to be considered as element of study rather than as obstacle. When introduced to families of the deceased, for example, the difficulties of blending in the field is indeed part of the data to be collected.

To prepare for the workshop, doctoral researchers were asked to create a 10-minute presentation to address their own methodological challenges. In an opposite trend against common tasks of presenting a research project at the best of it, in this session, the clearer you could set out your research complications, the more successful you were. After the eleven presentations, an overwhelming amount of methodological difficulties emerged.

The six identified areas were the following:

1. covert/overt fieldwork; 2. the problem of inside/outside; 3. language barriers; 4. ethics; 5. data analysis; 6. dissemination/publication of data.

The final feedback discussion involved each participant feeling more confident and stronger in the previously problematic area. By honestly and openly sharing problems, it was possible to find solutions, and not just general ones, but personalized answers fashioned to the needs of the specific problems presented. Sitting down and reflecting together on research challenges proved to be very productive, more so than just praising positive achievements. In contrast, in the case of this workshop success has to be fully acknowledged.

WS Snapshots of Change: Assessing social transformations in qualitative research (Zurich, 23-24.10.2015)

This report by Thiruni Kelegama and Madlen Kobi of the workshop Snapshots of Change: Assessing social transformations in qualitative research was first published on the blog AllegraLab under the title “Snapshots of Change” – How focusing on change affects on research material. Many thanks to the authors and to the administrators of the blog who allowed us to reproduce it here.

Ever since the multiplication of protest movements that have gained prominence since 2011, the issue of change and its assessment has become a recurring topic in scientific research. The link between protest and change has been influenced immensely by researchers’ own interests and political engagement in claims and movements. By placing the notions of “change” and “social transformation” at the centre of this ambitious workshop, the aim of “Snapshots of Change” was to critically reflect and discuss how we methodologically and theoretically deal with the notion of “change” in qualitative research. Studying change is linked to reflections on how to name the transformations we are observing or are interested in. More than anything, the words used to label change matter as they are value-laden, often referring to the direction towards which the named process is expected to move.

Notions such as development, transition, evolution, progress, rupture and revolution have often a strong normative dimension as they convey teleological presuppositions imbedded in grand narratives linked to liberalism, democratisation, developmentalism or socialism for example.

By questioning and transgressing such notions, the workshop “Snapshots of Change,” organized in October 2015 at the University Research Priority Program Asia and Europe at University of Zurich, succeeded in highlighting areas for future research. The workshop was convened by Yasmine Berriane, Aymon Kreil, Dorothea Lüddeckens, Melek Saral and Thiruni Kelegama, and brought together 12 presenters from all over Europe, 6 discussants and 10 poster presenters, all engaged in 2 days of intensive discussion about change from various perspectives. The presented reflections on change were based on a broad range of qualitative data: besides interviews, ethnographic fieldwork and biographies, workshop participants also presented insights in tracing change through objects like souvenirs, photographs, diaries, written documents, and digital sources.

In this conference report, rather than repeating the content of the workshop (which is accessible in the URPP bulletin [1]), we start from the perspective of our own research topics on state formation in northeastern Sri Lanka (Thiruni Kelegama) and on urban transformation in China (Madlen Kobi). By referring to some key concepts raised in the workshop, it is our aim to emphasize the impact that the workshop had on our perspectives and future dealings with change in our own research.

Enacting the state in northeastern Sri Lanka (Thiruni Kelegama)

Working on a dissertation that is an ethnographic study of development, resettlement and militarisation in northeastern Sri Lanka involves a significant interest in temporality, or that of ‘change’. My thesis looks at the processes of state formation and demonstrates how the state gets reproduced in the margins. By looking at state formation undertaken in postwar Sri Lanka, I thereby engage with the changing relationship between state, territory and nation. My field site of Weli Oya is located in northeastern Sri Lanka, a space that is often demarcated as a frontier in the country’s three-decade-old protracted war between the Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan government security forces. Weli Oya is a key site for the oldest state led development programme in Sri Lanka, which involved developing the existing jungle into inhabitable land with irrigated rice fields and subsequently establishing settlement schemes. Such programmes also contributed to the long history of spearheading ethnic grievances in the country. In my research, I engage with questions relating to what kind of development and what kind of change — visible and invisible transformations — take place.

This was reflected in one of the key questions of the workshop: How does one not take for granted the simple fact that change is an imminent part of all social processes we study?

By challenging the acknowledged functionalist and structuralist assumptions of a rather static society, the workshop posited a socio-anthropological point of view, thereby replacing the former with a more dynamic and multivocal perspectives on society and social change. A presentation by Irene Bono (University of Torino) approached the nation in Morocco from the perspective of one individual in order to explain larger social processes, demonstrating how the linearity of change can be reproduced. By reconstructing life situations through the analysis of objects of one informant through “biographical fieldwork”, she used these “traces” not to underline the hegemonic timelines, but to approach the fragmented parts of individual histories that could be deemed discreet. Bono’s work provided a new lens with which to look at aspects of my own research: how to understand a present view of past events, with the aid of ideas, traces, and experiences of one individual.

While this workshop helped explore alternatives to a linear timeline, or a teleological history or phenomena, I also learnt of the different ways in which change can be narrated. It is here that wording of informants, media, and literature came into prominence in the workshop, as public discourses serve to remind us that change is considered part of everyday social life, and hence is part of most individual and social narratives. In Rivka Eisner’s (University of Zurich) example of social change in postwar Vietnam she emphasizes that narratives refer to different paces of change. Change could be either fast or slow.

Narratives as performances dealing with the past are not accounts of credible memories and exact facts, but are rather perceptions of change imbued with psychological, physical and emotional aspects.

This approach helped me return to my ongoing research with a new perspective: how do I take into consideration the life stories and narratives that form part of a history of Sri Lanka that I am telling? This question was followed by a reflection on the methods we, as researchers, use for assessing change. Youssef El Chazli (University of Lausanne) demonstrated how digital traces can help us amalgamate additional views on trajectories and past events. His paper focused especially on Facebook data in order to approach the motives of becoming an activist, concluding with how “explicit traces” on Facebook produce “in vivo” complementary data, which can be triangulated with conventional ethnographic methods. El Chazli’s approach helped affirm that sometimes one needs to move beyond narrative data when it comes to an exact account of events. Further, I was inspired to not only take in the direct accounts of history that were transmitted to me, but to highlight the importance of digital voices, re-echoing a modern take on postcolonial approaches and working with archival data to unearth the voice of the subaltern.

Urban transformation in northwest China (Madlen Kobi)

If social change is fluid, flexible and embedded in everyday experiences, in what ways is it possible to accurately represent social change in our written academic publications? This was the main question that the workshop triggered for my own data analysis. As my research deals with the obvious and fast transformation of urban areas in oases cities in Southern Xinjiang (China) literally “in the making,” the relationship between material and social changes is the main focus of my inquiries. Many discourses explaining urban transformation deal with the built environment: taller housing is often connected to more anonymity, destruction of old town housing can be interpreted as a symbol for the loss of culture, and recently introduced urban elements like new residential compounds or squares are associated with the unification of urban spaces all over China. From the workshop contributions, Daniele Cantini (Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg) made me think about the causalities of the ethnographically documented changes. Through a shifting of his own data, Cantini pointed out that the researcher is creating chains of events in order to explain change and to name causes and effects of social events.

But what if change is actually inherent to any social process as is the predominant credo of social anthropologists after structural-functionalism?

There is no reason for a particular emphasis on “change,” but transformation is happening in manifold and diverse ways as an inherent aspect of everyday social activities. It makes therefore no sense to explicitly focus on change, if change is not the exception, but a regularly used discursive tool helping actors to explain social realities.

Change is expected to happen on a linear scale from cause to effect. This aspect was frequently discussed throughout the workshop as I reflected on the temporality of change. Can we only explain social change when narrating past events and bringing together the stories of research participants? And is there a chance to anticipate social change? When we look at the unexpected protest movements in the MENA region, social change was not predictable. However, retrospectively, researchers find traces that pointed to this change long before the first protesters publicly articulated themselves. In another example, Sophie Feyder (University of Leiden) showed how she constructed a chain of historical events through the photograph collection of Ronald Nglima (Johannesburg) from the 1950s. Feyder exemplified that photos can provide snapshots into the historical period when they were taken, but rather than showing actual change, they are useful to announce change in a kind of retrospective reconstruction of the snapshots. Although through memories, objects and narratives, research participants and researchers seem to be able to reconstruct moments, we could not have predicted them. I observed a similar phenomenon in the handling of my own research data: By relying on the discourses of my research participants that fundamental changes are happening, I collected my data in light of their articulated perception of social change. I, myself, tried to explain urban transformation as something emerging along a linear timeline. Thanks to the inputs from the workshop, I now question the often simplified assumption that change exists in the context of urbanization. I realized that linear change is something that we, as researchers, create, but it does not necessarily have to stand in the centre for explaining everyday lives.

Besides general thinking about the causal embedding of change, the workshop provided awareness of written text – academic or non-academic – as always a “snapshot of change”; as in writing, we necessarily follow a linear advancement of description and analysis. My longterm ethnographic fieldwork in China provides an embodied method of making change perceptibly accessible through revisits of the same places as well as through first hand information of how respondents perceive change. While in the dusty streets of the oasis city Aqsu in Southern Xinjiang, in talking to real estate managers to immigrated taxi drivers, change is verbalized in discourses and visualized in the transforming cityscape. In my view, the difficulty comes with guaranteeing that this instantaneous experience gained through embodied fieldwork and the accompanying interview data will be properly represented in the written and read texts.

If change stands at the centre of our analysis, then we have to be careful of the mentioned chain of events that we create since data is easily instrumentalized for emphasizing exactly the transformation aspect. What would happen if we would analyze our data without putting “change” at the centre of it?

The constructive nature of social change

“Social Change” has become a buzzword in the social sciences, however, rarely debated and approached from such an in-depth perspective as this workshop. While analyzing their own research material through the lens of “change,” workshop presenters highlighted the diverse methodological and theoretical implications that such a focus brings. Inspired by these insights, participants experienced how thinking profoundly about change can also affect our own research projects in the above outlined diverse contexts of state formation in Sri Lanka or urbanization in China. Theoretically, there is still potential to overcome the commonly practiced linear approach to narrating change and to revitalize the debate of whether change really exists and when it does, how to separate it from other social processes. Methodologically, the challenges lie in the difficulty to assess narratives and traces in order to reconstruct change and in the representation of everyday social changes in static written texts. In the end, change seems to be something that can only emerge from looking back. But an analysis of narratives rather shows us something about the present and the people’s perspectives (and expectations) on past events from their standpoint today rather than about changes actually happening. Although rarely thinking explicitly about change, placing it as the focus of analysis was a rewarding exercise. Thus, from a socio-anthropological perspective we would conclude that change exists, however, as a construction created by the researcher’s assemblage of actions, events, narratives and structures at different scales.

[1] Asia & Europe Bulletin. 2016. University of Zurich: University Research Priority Program (URPP) Asia and Europe.


The Swiss Qualitative Research Encounters is an interdisciplinary working group whose aim is to address methodological challenges in qualitative research. Our focus is on the study of contemporary societies, mainly through fieldwork research, and including both European and non-European societies. The working group organizes at least once a year an international workshop. Too often, the relation between research statements and the scope of the gathered data goes astray. The purpose of these encounters is to address core issues of the social sciences through the lens of the specific demands of qualitative research and to review its assessments accordingly. As result, the working group promotes the creation of practical research solutions adapted to the particularities of case studies. The aim of this blog is to share the discussions of the Swiss Qualitative Research Encounters with other researchers interested in these issues.