Academic journal article African Studies Review

Getting Close to Rwandans since the Genocide: Studying Everyday Life in Highly Politicized Research Settings

Academic journal article African Studies Review

Getting Close to Rwandans since the Genocide: Studying Everyday Life in Highly Politicized Research Settings

Article excerpt

Abstract:

Research with people in highly politicized research settings illuminates the gap between the images that most African governments strive to represent and the sociopolitical realities of everyday life. This article discusses the opportunities and challenges of doing research in postgenocide Rwanda and is a useful resource for researchers contemplating their own projects under such conditions, whether in Rwanda or elsewhere. It discusses the importance of creating personal relationships and meeting people on their terms, as well as such topics as the identification of the research site, building rapport and trust with respondents, safeguarding anonymity and confidentiality, and working with local research assistants and partners.

Résumé: La recherche menée avec des collègues dans des milieux de recherche hautement politisés met en lumière l'écart entre l'image que la plupart des gouvernements africains veulent se donner et les réalités socio-économiques de la vie courante. L'article examine les opportunités et les difficultés liées à la recherche menée au Rwanda à la suite du génocide, et se veut une source première utile pour les chercheurs contemplant leurs propres projets dans de telles conditions, que ce soit au Rwanda ou ailleurs. L'article contemple l'importance de créer des liens personnels avec les sujets de la recherche; de travailler avec des partenaires et un assistant de recherche locaux ; d'organiser des rencontres avec des gens ordinaires selon leurs propres termes, y compris le choix des sites de recherche, et l'établissement d'un rapport de confiance avec les personnes interrogées pour protéger l'anonymat et la confidentialité de ceux-ci.

Despite the ethical and practical challenges of doing micro-level ethnographic research in highly politicized settings, there is a dearth of academic literature on the practical difficulties of conducting such research, and a particular absence of guidance on when and how to work with politically marginal or socially vulnerable individuals. By definition, ethnographic research means that the researcher "gets close" to people's everyday experiences "through exposure to or involvement in the day-to-day or routine activities of participants in the research setting" (Schensul et al. 1999:91). ^ In highly politicized environments - meaning those in which government exerts considerable control over sociopolitical discourses and seeks to control what people can say about the government and its policies - getting close to people's everyday experiences is all the more challenging, especially when the investigator brings foreign identities to the encounter.

Without analysis of the demands and challenges of designing and implementing a micro-level ethnographic project in highly politicized environments, the fieldwork of scholars and practitioners alike cannot benefit from the "hands-on" experiences of colleagues who have conducted research in similar settings. The stresses and strains of identifying effective research strategies are left to the individual researcher, often on an ad hoc basis, without any connection to praxis. This can put the researcher as well as collaborators, research subjects, and assistants at risk. Since research on the social and political realities of life after violence is important and necessary, fieldwork that is informed by the examples of those who have already carried out such work allows researchers entering the field to make informed decisions about when, where, and how to do research with marginal or vulnerable people. By marginal I mean individuals over whom power is exercised but who do not exercise power themselves. By vulnerable I mean those individuals who, due to adverse economic, social, and political factors, have no adequate emotional or physical protection from the government, which in turn makes it difficult for them to anticipate, adapt to, resist, and recover from state-led interventions in their daily lives. …

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