Conducting Ethnography in Times of Political Turmoil—lessons from the field

Written by Charlotte Vangsgaard & Anna Ebbesen

In the period leading up to the Arab Spring, we were tasked with understanding what—if any—shared values Egyptians had across religious, gender, age, and economic differences. Toward the end of our project, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia, and the Arab Spring was soon fueling an uprising in several Middle Eastern countries. The interviews and encounters were therefore conducted in a climate so politicized that even conversation about the weather could be viewed as commentary about the regime. Such guarded ways of communicating require researchers to adapt methods and approaches to ensure that the necessary depth and nuance is obtained while at the same time taking precautions to ensure the safety of partners and respondents.

Three elements proved key in making our research as fruitful and rich as possible, given the circumstances:

1. Emphasize observation

Getting to the underlying values that drive and motivate human beings is always tricky, even in times of stability. Most people can probably mention a few values that they think are central to the way they live their lives, but people are rarely like corporations, which often have an explicit set of values that function as a guiding star—a set of formalized principles for how employees should perceive and represent the company and how the company should engage with the world. For ordinary people, values are often intangible concepts, which can make it difficult to get at through surveys or quantitative methods. In order to arrive at a profound and contextual understanding of people’s values, you have to invest more time and energy on the ground, engaging in deep, anthropologically informed fieldwork.

Spend time with people. Realizing the challenges we were faced with, we added time to simply hang out with Egyptians. We watched television, went grocery shopping, and followed them to prayers to get a deeper understanding of the practices that make up their world and the values those practices are based on. This deeper sense of what everyday life is actually like made it possible for us to get past the guarded answers that a standard survey would have produced.

2. Engage with a local partner

When conducting fieldwork in a volatile society, partnering with locals can be the best way to secure the safety of researchers and keep everyone up to date on what’s happening on the ground. ReD trained researchers in performing deep dives and guided them throughout the project. But working with local partners also had a downside: bias.
Look out for bias toward the status quo.
Unlike visiting researchers, local partners have to be able to do business and must exist in the society they’re researching after the project is over. As a result, they’re prone to sway data, making it suggest that people are happy about the status quo and playing down signs of dissatisfaction with the current regime. In our project, this meant that our partners were wary of publishing any criticism of Mubarak or other insights or commentary that could provoke the regime. Maintaining integrity in the research while acknowledging our partners’ need to stay clear of trouble was a balancing act that should be anticipated when working in highly politicized areas.

Look out for confirmation bias

Unconsciously, researchers added their own ideas about the “right” Egyptian values to their work, focusing on those they themselves saw as truly Egyptian. This is always a challenge when studying such subject matter—any researcher will have some notion of what is particularly American, Swedish, or, in this case, Egyptian, and recognize it when they encounter it in the field. Spotting these elements confirms their notion that their perceptions are true, causing the researcher to overemphasize them in their work.
We tackled these biases through conversation in the field and rigorous discussions during pattern analysis, ensuring that researchers asked themselves why they might have championed one insight over another. This way our researchers acted as devil’s advocates for each other’s work, keeping the insights true to what they actually saw in the field.

3. Allow for complete anonymity

In a politicized climate, talking freely isn’t something that can be achieved by having respondents sign a waiver assuring that nothing they say will ever be traced back to them or their photo published. The mere existence of such a document can be seen as a threat to their security, as the signature identifies them and ties them back to the project. An added complication was that the majority of Egyptians we interviewed were illiterate and therefore wouldn’t have been able to read any of our assurances about data security, which would have made a waiver cause for suspicion instead of comfort.

Leave no trace of the respondent’s real identity

To overcome this, we made a practical decision to invent aliases prior to meeting people, ensuring that real names and addresses weren’t on any written record. Upon recruiting respondents, the confidentiality agreement was conveyed in a colloquial way, and the trustworthiness of the project was connected with that of our local partner. During the project, we referred to the aliases only in our notes, files, and publications, ensuring that people would never be accused of anything should our data fall into the wrong hands.

This project laid the foundation for coming events, workshops, and work to be done by the institute, tasked with promoting and creating grounds for peaceful dialogue in Egypt. If you want to know more about the outcome of the project, you can read our case description here.

The Danish-Egyptian Dialogue Institute (DEDI) is an intergovernmental body under the Danish-Arab Partnership Programme. Established in 2004, DEDI’s core mandate as a center of excellence is to promote political and cultural understanding between Denmark and Egypt and between Europe and the Arab World.


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