The stakes couldn’t be higher for people living in active conflict. It is vital that we seek out their perspectives and views on how to prevent and transform conflict and build peace in their communities.
Clearly, asking for feedback through pre-recorded messages is not a route we should ever go down when asking difficult questions. Our research needs to be sensitive and carefully considered in the way that we (usually external organisations and agencies) try to understand the context, the perspectives of people living through conflict, the power dynamics at play and crucially, the changes needed to make things better.
When we speak to participants, we need to be clear about the purpose of our research and involve a range of people in the planning and design to ensure it is relevant and useful to them. Once the research is done, we need to get better at going back to research participants to let them know the outcomes. This type of research is known as practice or action research.
There are many barriers to consider both for researchers and those participating in the research. From issues of access and security to difficult decisions of sample size and the ethical challenges of asking people to describe experiences that may be traumatic, personal or risky – there is no shortage of factors we need to take into account.
1. Use the research process as a peacebuilding opportunity and not just a means to an end (the ‘end’ being the research paper that lands on someone’s desk or in our inboxes). We need to carefully consider our research methods, accountability and ethical frameworks to make sure we are getting the most out of opportunities to build trust and support peacebuilding efforts.
2. Put duty of care to research participants at the heart of what we do and make sure there are clear ethical and accountability standards in place. These should be shared and understood by the researchers and research participants. We are accountable to the people we are interviewing and need to keep this foremost in our minds in order to minimise any distress to those asking or answering the questions.
3. Be balanced and responsible to donors and research participants. Accountability to donors who fund our research is undeniably important, but we need to balance this with responsibility to research participants. The push for results can lead to over-promising on the number of research products an organisation commits to. Short time-frames and limited budgets for participatory research worsen already difficult and time-sensitive work. This may mean reducing the number of research outputs to allow proper time for the research process and for meaningful participation.
4. Be clear about the purpose of research and how it affects local people. It may be that the best decision is not to undertake the research at all, for example if there is ‘research fatigue’ among a population or if the research will be overly extractive – meaning that the research takes information without giving back to the communities. This blog contends that all research is extractive to a degree, so we should focus on minimising this as much as possible.
5. Apply validity criteria to increase confidence in the process and in the final outputs of the research. A framework for action research used by the Institute of Development Studies, emphasises good relations, practical outcomes, scientific rigour, addressing significant problems and enduring consequence. It provides a rubric against which we can measure the validity of practical research and allows us to check in at regular intervals to question areas such as research methods, partnership models and analysis. The criteria can help assess, for example, how many participants need to be interviewed for a piece of qualitative research to be considered valid and rigorous.
Putting people and change at the heart of research
Saferworld, International Alert and Conciliation Resources are collaborating through the Peace Research Partnership
, to put people and positive change at the heart of practice research in conflict contexts around the world. We believe this approach is more likely to lead to ‘new’ and applicable knowledge – providing evidence that supports a reduction in violence through addressing the underlying drivers of conflict. It is grounded in our work with people living through conflict to provide immediate support and contribute to longer-term change and solutions. Learning as we go (including from those outside the peacebuilding sector such as academics) through challenging and interrogating our own assumptions and approaches is crucial to improve our own practice. Through this learning approach we aim to provide more targeted support, and to enable and empower those living through conflict.
Discussions within the Peace Research Partnership
, and between the wider practitioner community, representatives from academia and the UK government are crucial to bridge the academic and practice research divide because both are needed. Both are valuable tools that provide evidence of what fuels or minimises drivers of conflict so this knowledge can be fed back into decision-making and peace and stability can be built and sustained.
As we look forward, we hope to continue to find spaces for shared reflection and honest debate about how best to conduct research that puts people and peaceful change at its heart.