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Research Methods, Fieldwork and Publishing under State Scrutiny

Session V-02, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 1:30 pm

RoundTable Description
While much attention has gone to how the Arab Spring has changed the ability to conduct fieldwork in places like Libya, Syria, and Egypt, this roundtable examines fieldwork in and publishing about the Gulf where the political risks have shifted even in the absence of widespread political instability or civil unrest. Ethical research training often focuses on the risks to research participants. By contrast, this roundtable seeks to engage scholars in a discussion about how they have navigated risks to themselves when conducting research in high surveillance settings or on topics that are perceived as controversial. We are interested in how the location of fieldwork, our own positionality, and power structures dynamically interact with each other to inform the processes in which we collect data, how we analyze it, and what we choose to publish. In short, we want to reflect on our experiences in the field to understand how these have impacted the ways in which we choose (or not) to engage in the processes of knowledge production pertaining to the Gulf. We are also interested in reflecting upon our field experiences to locate their (continuing) impact on the nature of our research relationships and emotional attachments to people and places. This roundtable seeks to address the following themes: 1) Fieldwork design and positionality: It will address how the built and social environments–and surveillance infrastructures–shape research designs and how relationships between the researcher and research subject unfold. It also examines how the positionality of the researcher–especially legal status, gender, age, religion–shape fieldwork decisions. 2) Mental health and well-being of researchers: This will address concerns around legal status, the changing political climate during fieldwork, tip-toeing around social boundaries and red lines, and the paranoia and anxiety of addressing issues that are perceived to be sensitive. 3) Implications for the production of knowledge: This will address how decisions to publish (or not) in response to perceived surveillance impact knowledge production. This can require circumscribing research domains to specific questions and topics while evading others due to political sensitivities that may only serve to entrench particular framings of the participants and context.
  • Time and Ethical Research: Mitigating Risks in a Changing Political Environment Informed consent can only be granted on the basis of a participant having full knowledge of the possible consequences of the research. But the calculation of risks is situational, and the political environment in the Gulf shifted critically in 2011, changing the potential risks to participants. This intervention will focus on the ethical questions (and anxieties) that emerged for me as a researcher when I conducted interviews in the UAE prior to 2011, but attempted to analyze, write, and publish my findings after 2011. How should we address critical political junctures, deepening surveillance, and the emergence of new “red lines”? Should informed consent, once granted, withstand the test of time? Should we retroactively contact interviewees to see whether they are still comfortable sharing what they have already shared? What if the mere act of re-engaging interviewees again could put them at risk? Should we instead take it upon ourselves to interpret what we perceive the new red lines to be and decide not to publish what was shared with us? What if that means silencing and excluding voices that want to be heard? When given more information about how closely social networks are surveilled, what should we do to re-shape our social media presence? Should we pre-emptively delete contacts on social networks we have? What if that act only reinforces perceptions that researchers “take” what they need from people in the field only to abandon them after fieldwork? What about where to publish our findings, what language to publish in, or how to promote our research? Open-source articles and twitter can close the divide between the ivory tower and larger audiences and make academic work more accessible. However, greater accessibility can also increase how “political” or threatening the work is perceived to be. This presentation will discuss the range of ethical questions that emerged for me retroactively, and the difficult and imperfect choices I made to mitigate risks to myself and my interlocutors in a changing political environment.
  • In thinking about the socio-spatiality of the sociological interview, governmental surveillance can have far-reaching consequences. Concerns about surveillance move us beyond abstraction and focus our attention on concrete encounters between oneself and interviewees and the spaces where they transpire. Environments that are often deemed comfortable and congenial to private conversation can be unsafe and inappropriate due to cultural norms and the surveillance of the state, two factors that are intertwined. Cultural norms construct socio-spatial boundaries that delimit access and mobility based on social identity. In a context that is highly surveilled, crossing these socio-spatial boundaries can draw unwanted attention and place offenders at risk. In addition to issues of security, the specific place where the sociological interview is conducted impacts that data collected. The place impacts the interactional dynamics between the interviewer and interviewee as well as the identities, power, and knowledge that the interview produces. As a white, middle-aged woman conducting interviews with low-wage migrant workers in a highly surveilled state, the impact of the context on the overall research design and discrete methodological choices was immense. The consequences, though, need not always be detrimental. They can lead to creative thinking, new approaches, and positive results, one of which resulted in the car being the site of the interview. While to Americans who are unfamiliar with the Arab Gulf the car may be an unlikely location for divulging one’s emotional well-being and suicidal thoughts, in Dubai it created a safe, discreet, mobile environment.
  • In recent years, research on Gulf identities has witnessed a veritable interest from scholars working on migration, citizenship, nation-building, and race. While much of the attention remains on non-nationals, particularly in countries where they constitute the majority of the population, there is also a growing body of work that examines pre-oil and pre-nation migrations to the Gulf, and how their legacies have shaped the current legal stratification and social hierarchies among Gulf nationals. Yet, engaging with research that has the potential to undermine official discourses on Gulf identities come with particular challenges. As official and popular discourses serve to justify and legitimise socio-political projects, for instance nation-building, they are also intimately embedded in mechanisms of power, carefully governing what can be said, and written on these topics. By marking the boundaries of what is researchable -or deemed as unproblematic-, this context inevitably brings profound implications on various forms of knowledge production about Gulf identities. Drawing on my experiences of conducting fieldwork with young people in Dubai as a young, Turkish woman, I discuss how the relationship between geopolitics, my subject position as a researcher and regulatory powers on discourse have influenced the research process, what I choose to publish, and where I choose to represent my work. I reflect on the omnipresent nature of self-surveillance both on the parts of the participants and the researcher, and how these have modified the direction and nature of conversations, both on conscious and subconscious levels, even after fieldwork. I pay close attention to the intersecting aspects of my identity such as my gender, age and nationality, as well as my lived experiences as a migrant in Dubai, and how together they shaped a particular sense of comfort, safety and scrutiny. I do not perceive the regulatory powers on discourse as static, however. I consider how they are constantly reconfigured in response to socio-economic and political circumstances, reshaping the boundaries of what is deemed risky, or researchable. Instead of attributing dearth of research on difference and inequality among Gulf citizens to a lack of understanding or interest, I bring forward challenges of researching in these fields to reflect on the ways in which we can contribute to a more nuanced understanding of inequality, insecurity and social difference in these societies that are beyond and in-between the binary of citizen/non-citizen.
  • Faced with precariousness, an epistemology of exchange. Reflections on a decade of ethnographic research in Dubai Carrying out research on and with migrants when a migrant oneself may mean constantly redefining the relationship between researcher and the object of the research, the geometry of which evolves according to their respective trajectories, whether social or in terms of legal status. The shared migration experience creates a space for reflection and dialogue between researcher and interlocutors, expressed in their exchanges or at least sensed by the latter. In the early 2010s, when I was conducting ethnographic surveys on Iranian migrants in Dubai and their transnational practices between Iran and the United Arab Emirates, I was myself an Iranian migrant in a foreign country and confronted with the precarious situation of a foreign student. During the fieldwork, my own precariousness was doubly reinforced by my status in the Emirates and the subject of the research I was working on: the Iranian presence there was becoming an increasingly sensitive subject as a result of geopolitical tensions between the two countries and security considerations that exposed Iranian migrants, like myself, to a constant feeling of insecurity. In this context, and when facing my Iranian interlocutors in Dubai, the precariousness of our respective situations became a subject of conversation that, through constant comparison between our different living environments and migration experiences, often facilitated our interaction. Our migratory paths were, however, inscribed in two different institutional contexts, with almost totally different prospects for legal integration, owing to the differences in citizenship policies. From these field experiences, I was able to develop close friendships that have allowed me to maintain constant links with my 'research subject' until today. The return to the field has thus become an important, even essential epistemological tool. However, were one drily to call this approach "the methodology", ethical considerations, especially in the North American context, would be inadequate to define the contours for its validation. In this presentation, by developing the notion of the epistemology of exchange, by putting it into perspective with the epistemology of discomfort evoked in other work carried out in the Gulf, and by highlighting the need for a longitudinal approach, I will investigate the evolution of relations between researchers and their interlocutors, that of their legal and social status, and the links these have with the modalities of knowledge production.