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The Ethical Challenges of Field Research in Conflict Zones

  • Special Issue: Political Ethnography I
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Drawing on 26 months of field research in El Salvador during the civil war, I analyze some ethical challenges that confront field researchers working in conflict zones. After briefly summarizing the purpose and general methodology of my research, I discuss in detail the research procedures I followed to implement the “do no harm” ethic of empirical research. I first analyze the particular conditions of the Salvadoran civil war during the period of research. I then discuss the procedures meant to ensure that my interviews with people took place with their fully informed consent—what I understood that to mean and how I implemented it. I then turn to the procedures whereby the anonymity of those interviewed and the confidentiality of the data gathered were ensured to the extent possible. Throughout I discuss particular ethical dilemmas that I confronted, including issues of self-presentation and mistaken identity, the emotional challenges of field work in highly polarized settings (which if not well understood may lead to lapse in judgment), and my evolving questions concerning the researcher role and its limitations. I also discuss the dilemmas that arise in the dissemination of research findings and the repatriation of data.

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  1. The five case-study areas met the following research criteria. Each area had to be reasonably accessible to me in my small truck and should be politically manageable (in the Salvadoran context this meant that only one or two of the five insurgent factions should be active there). Across the case-study areas, I sought variation in the social relations that prevailed before the war (wage labor, share-cropping, peasant agriculture, etc) and in the patterns of political mobilization (that is, areas where some civilians actively supported the insurgents and some the government). However, this research design emerged through a more convoluted process than this indicates, as explained in chapter 3 of Wood (2003).

  2. Once that process was completed, as far as I was aware there were no restrictions placed on my movement or research.

  3. The accuracy of the claims by these cooperative leaders to occupy extensive areas of land in 1992 was confirmed by my own travel and observation in the case-study areas and by examination of the land claims data held by the insurgent group, the government, and the United Nations during the postwar land transfer process.

  4. See for example Green (1995), Nordstrom (1997), and Das (1990).

  5. For further discussion of the challenges of ethnography in wartime, see Wood (2003: chapters 2 and 3). See also Nordstrom (1997), Peritore (1990), and Smythe and Gillian (2001), and the essays in the collection by Nordstrom and Robben (1995).

  6. See Kalyvas (2006) and Weinstein (in press) for discussion of patterns of violence in civil wars.

  7. Severine Autesserree, personal communication.

  8. See National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research (1979), known as the Belmont Report.

  9. Such procedures are required for researchers based in the US through a mandatory review of research proposals involving human subjects by institutional review boards, which must either approve project procedures or rule the project exempt. Although ethnographic research that poses minimal risk to human subjects can be reviewed under expedited procedures, that is clearly not the case for research in conflict zones. See National Research Council (2003) for discussion of the conditions for expedited review.

  10. I initially feared that this affiliation would discourage government officials and landlords from speaking with me: the government and rightist elites throughout the war repeatedly denounced the university as supporting the “terrorists.” While some landlords shared their opinions of the university with me, none declined to participate in the project on these grounds.

  11. I did, however, provide lunch for those drawing maps in the workshops.

  12. In the Salvadoran setting, it might not have been appropriate to ask the local priest or nun to support the project by taking on this role: in other areas, pastoral agents were clearly allied with one party or another.

  13. I gave copies to the non-governmental organization that had carried out the reconstruction and to members of my MA committee. The official copy of my MA thesis held by the University of California at Berkeley was held by the library under an agreement that it would not be made available for five years after its filing.

  14. My caution was recently confirmed when a review of my second book appeared in an issue dedicated to understanding insurgency of a publication (Special Warfare, December 2004) of the US Army's John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, which may well be read by Salvadoran military officers.

  15. See the essays collected in Jaarsma (2002) for extended discussion of the difficulties in implementing this norm.

  16. I initially regretted this decision (although I never doubted it was the right thing to do) as the photographs when developed showed merely slightly colored lines on a background of light gray, as might be expected of a photograph of a hand-drawn map. Fortunately, once the photographs were digitized restoration proved possible (thanks to Carolyn Resnicke of the Santa Fe Institute).


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Thanks to Severine Autesserre, Samuel Bowles, Alexandra Garrison, Micheline Egge Grung, Richard L. Wood, and the participants in the seminar “Research Ethics in Conflict Zones—Facing the Ethical Challenges for the Researcher” sponsored by the National Committee for Research Ethics in the Social Sciences and the Humanities (Oslo, April 4, 2005) for their comments on an earlier version, and to the Yale Center for International and Area Studies and the Santa Fe Institute for research support.

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Correspondence to Elisabeth Jean Wood.

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Elisabeth Jean Wood is Professor of Political Science at Yale University and Research Professor at the Santa Fe Institute. In her research on civil wars—patterns of political violence particularly sexual violence, the logic of collective action, the conditions for robust negotiated settlements—she draws on ethnographic field research, formal modeling, and analysis of macroeconomic and other data. She is the author of Forging Democracy from Below: Insurgent Transitions in South Africa and El Salvador (Cambridge University Press, 2000) and Insurgent Collective Action and Civil War in El Salvador (Cambridge University Press, 2003).

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Wood, E.J. The Ethical Challenges of Field Research in Conflict Zones. Qual Sociol 29, 373–386 (2006).

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