Apr 14

‘Friend’ or ‘foreign agent’? On the limits of field research in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan

Guest post by Philipp Lottholz and Joshua Meyer

With the summer season and field trips to Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian countries approaching, many will find themselves busy preparing their trips, getting their ethical approval, and figuring out how they are going to collect the data they are hoping for. Strategies for approaching interlocutors and potential partner organizations form a crucial part of the discussions ahead of everyone’s fieldwork. The two of us went through the same process last year: we received our ethical approval and prepared our networking and recruitment strategy meticulously. And yet, as if governed by some law above, once in the field we faced resistance, rejection and misunderstanding from some of the people who we tried to convince to participate in our research. Some of our failings were due to misunderstandings, poor selections, or the unlucky moments at which we tried to put forward our requests. Still, a significant pattern in the ways in which we obtained access to interviewees and informants emerged. We think it is worth sharing here.

This post is essentially about the misconceptions that academics in the field are susceptible to when trying to sell their research and recruit participants for it. It is first and foremost for PhD students who are awaiting their departure to a country where they are looking to do field research. More generally, we seek to reflect on and scrutinize the way in which researchers in different disciplines recruit people as research participants, and how such recruitment processes often evolve into the accumulation of networks that are a key driver of the knowledge that is gathered during fieldwork. To illustrate this, we will tell the stories of our field research in Kyrgyzstan during the summer of 2015. Even though our disciplines and research interests were quite different – peacebuilding and community security on the one hand; the collection of voice recordings for a linguistic database on the other – our experiences were unexpectedly similar.

Both of us experienced periods during which we managed to gather data and recruit research participants with extraordinary ease. At other times, the seeming suspicion and discomfort we were met with, and the difficulty we had in convincing people to participate in our research, left us puzzled as to the reasons for such a turn of events. The lesson we have drawn from these ups and downs is that networks and relationships play an invaluable role in the self-representation of a foreign researcher. Sometimes it appeared to us as if there was no middle way between either being a friend (or ‘friend of a friend’, etc.) of our interlocutor, or, on the other hand, facing suspicion over our research interests, affiliation and secondary agendas if we did not prove that we had a social grounding in the particular context. While we acknowledge that there might be people who took on this sort of advice earlier and acted upon it, we think it is still worth sharing our stories as a way of accepting failings as part of any field research and raising questions about the positionality and effect of knowledge networks in research that is carried out without any apparent frictions.

When good intentions are not enough: Negotiating access to actors in community security (Philipp)

Having already done research in Kyrgyzstan for my MSc dissertation three years ago, I was positive and ambitious when I arrived in Bishkek in early June. I had decided to focus my research on peacebuilding and security practices in local contexts in order to explore how democratic governance and administration mechanisms promoted by donors and international NGOs are combined with Kyrgyz traditional and cultural understandings of social order and values. I found this framing both academically interesting and a pragmatic choice for my field research as it suggested that local security and peacebuilding structures were constructing a ‘post-liberal’ alternative. The essence of post-liberal statebuilding would be institutions that were customized to the Kyrgyz context and thus overcame the orthodox governance and administration approaches that are said to be imposed by international actors.

Throughout my fieldwork I got the feeling, however, that the analytical framing of my research almost didn’t matter when I tried to convince people to participate in my research.  I came to feel I was treading a thin path on which I advanced quickly and almost without any friction. And when I tried to deviate from it slightly, it seemed like there was no way forward at all. Even though other factors played a role, in many cases the networks I was part of and people I could claim affiliation with proved to be the decisive factor of the acceptance or rejection of my research activities. I will use two cases of cooperative research to illustrate this.

I was lucky to be part of a workshop in Bishkek in the days right after my arrival. It was probably the most ideal start that one could have, as I met both people who had formerly worked in local NGOs as well as current staff of organizations actively working in my sphere of interest. As I presented myself as passionate and conscientious scholar, part of the wider group Central Asian scholars attending the workshop, making contact and introducing my research was easy, and to my luck I was invited to visit the office of one organization working on community security and peacebuilding in Osh, the main city in Southern Kyrgyzstan.

The subsequent invitation to work in that organization on a daily basis, to exchange views and knowledge with the staff while getting access to their projects and being able to include them in my research, was exactly the thing I had wished for – a dream seemed to have come true. I was admitted to help collect data on a series of visits to so-called local crime prevention centres throughout Osh and Batken provinces; an activity that gave me unexpected access and geographical coverage in my collection of data on community security. At the same time, I agreed to work on a cooperative research project with another actor, a Kyrgyz umbrella NGO working on police reform both on the national policy making level as well as through community security groups throughout the country. They agreed to regularly chat with me at their Bishkek office and give me access to observe the implementation of their projects on the local level. I seemed to be set up, having abundant opportunities to gather data and extend my network of interlocutors.

In both of these cases, however, my research activities seemed to hit an invisible glass wall at intermittent times. The former organization, with which I was based in Osh had to correct its course and, for instance, could not admit me to the training sessions for newly recruited local community security teams. The straightforward reason was the official character of these trainings, with Ministry of Interior staff being present. And even my participation in the local crime prevention centre profiling visits seemed to have sparked interest in the circles the organization was part of, which apparently signified to them the limits of lending their badge to foreign researchers.

On my visits to local community groups of the latter organization (working on police reform) I came to feel the glass wall that separated me from the society that I sought to get to know most significantly. I had already met with the head of a territorial council in the South, who was a respected member of the umbrella NGO given his efforts and successes in police reform after the Osh ‘2010 events’. He was sympathetic of my research and said I could do focus groups, single interviews and participatory observation without a problem. I could come to a local crime prevention centre session (including police men, aksakal [elderly] courts and other [semi-] state entities) and approach people. On said meeting, it was indeed instructive to see how policemen, district committee representatives and other actors were openly discussing the issues with different delinquents and people who were causing trouble in their community. Still, that was to remain the only real insight I got from this territorial council: when I approached different participants of the session to introduce my research and ask them to participate, I was met with reservation and neither got a clear ‘no’ nor a clear yes from people.

What was wrong with my requests for interviews and accounts of their everyday work life? I had even made an extra effort to draw up leaflets, which explained the purpose and content of my research clearly to the layperson and illustrated possible results with sample prints of book covers or online publications. These extra efforts were in vain: the leaflets were ignored. One district elderly court member agreed to talk to me, but all I got from him was generic information, and the conversation was interrupted and he left early. Another district committee leader agreed to meet the next day, but he ended up postponing our meetings the days thereafter so I had to give up on trying to meet him. My interlocutor, the head of this territorial council tried to explain: ‘For them, I am something like a superintendent [nachalnik], they tell me all of this in their own way. … Maybe they don’t really like to talk to you because of the language, maybe they’re a bit embarrassed [to tell things in Russian].’ I wasn’t convinced, but had to admit to my inability to get any data from these people. It is obvious that they either had a fatigue with participating in research conducted by foreigners or simply felt vulnerable when I approached them to ask questions about their daily work, more so in the presence of policemen who were still present at that moment. Given that this territorial council had been significantly affected by the ‘2010 events’ and their aftermath, the reservation was understandable. Another organization I had cooperated with had also reported that some participants of their trainings and workshops had been visited and asked questions by people from the State Committee for National Security (GKNB) after such interactions. The prospect of such scrutiny from the state would clearly be a reason to reject involvement in research. Still, or perhaps exactly because of that, all persons I approached in this particular territorial council tried to maintain a picture of normality and  never explicitly rejected my requests or give any concrete reasons for doing so.

The pathways of getting access to communities and their inner perspectives became more clear to me later on. I attended a meeting of a local security working group in Batken province, held by the same umbrella NGO as part of a project to promote the cooperation between the population and police in piloting communities. Two main activists from the head office in Bishkek held the session and introduced me both in my supporting function for the workshop and my research: ‘Philipp here is producing a big academic work. He writes about how we are building up a decent country [kak ustroim normalnuiu stranu].’ It wasn’t much more than that (and I made sure not to add more), but it had its effect: I was accepted as part of this collective endeavour and while people were curious about my origin, background and other details, there didn’t seem to be any suspicion in their words. Overall, I learned that in most (especially state) organizations there is a very strong hierarchy of command which needs to be employed in order to secure access to research sites in this sphere. This is especially true for foreigners, who generally seem to pose a risk in terms of how they use the information they obtain. The multiple times when I was asked by taxi drivers if I was working for the FBI or CIA bear testimony to this perception of foreigners as potential interferers and foreign agents.

The unexpectedly political issue of making recordings for linguistic research (Josh)

My research last summer was aimed at collecting high-quality audio recordings of people speaking Kyrygz. The goal is to have this collection of recordings be used as a resource by other linguists and researchers. Kyrgyz is a language with high dialectal variation, which is why I want to sample as many varieties as possible. This kind of collection (i.e. a spoken corpus) currently does not exist for the Kyrgyz language.

During the research, Kyrgyz-speakers sat down for an hour with either a friend, family member or a research assistant and were asked to have a normal conversation. This proved to be an awkward activity for many people. Knowing that you are being recorded makes it difficult to talk normally, especially when you know linguists are going to analyze what you say. Under these conditions, sometimes participants don’t know what to talk about. Anticipating this, I provided a list of conversation-starter topics. These topics related to Kyrygz food, culture, and language. For example, one question was: Talk about besh barmak (a common national food). How is it made? When is it usually eaten? Is it linked to any tradition or ceremony? I made sure to make these questions as innocuous as possible, checking them many times with native Kyrygz speakers as well as other researchers.

Before any recording started, each participant was given an overview of the research. During this briefing stage, I highlighted the fact that I was not looking for answers to questions, or opinions on issues. I told participants that I just wanted speech sounds, and I wanted them to be as natural as possible, i.e. in their local dialect or everyday language. As such, this particular research was not linked to any political, religious, or other sensitive topics unless participants had wished to talk about them as part of their recording exercise. Given this ‘apolitical’ nature of my research, I did not think I would have any problem finding participants. However, that wasn’t the case.

During the first month after my arrival, I managed to collect a good number of recordings at my host university in Bishkek. People wouldn’t hesitate to participate and spread the word among their peers. I was even provided with contacts of potential participants in the South of the country, and was accordingly positive about my subsequent trip and data collection efforts there. However, I came to realize that despite the non-political nature of my activities, it would not be a straightforward process.

Given my origin (American) and institutional affiliation (also American), it was not uncommon that I was treated with suspicion during my time in the country, especially in rural areas and the South more generally. My impression is that some people believe that foreigners (especially Westerners) are potentially foreign agents with interests in destabilizing the country. After discussing this issue with other researchers, I also believe that some locals may not actually think that foreigners are potentially spies, but instead, some people think that the government may give them trouble after speaking with a foreigner. In the North I was used to people joking about me being a spy, and it never felt like more than a joke. In the Southern Batken and Osh provinces, however, there was noticeably more hesitation from potential participants.

This suspicion or general discomfort about interactions with foreigners also affected my data  collection process. Even though I had been put in touch with prospective research participants in  the South by former participants from the university, people were hesitant to participate in the voice recording sessions. Even though I had been personally vouched for by friends from Bishkek – people were still reluctant. I was repeatedly asked (1) what I planned to do with the recordings, (2) whether or not I would put the recordings on the Internet, and (3) where I got the research money. The second question I heard more from people who didn’t have internet access, and the last question was a particularly common one.

I informed people that the recordings would only be available to other linguists and researchers who had received permission, which didn’t seem to mitigate their reluctance. One person asked me, “What if your government wants to take the recordings from you?” This was a question that I had never thought about and I merely said that this is practically impossible, and especially from a legal point of view. “They can still force you!”, insisted the local. Why couldn’t people see that my research was not political and was not going to be used against them in any way? Why couldn’t they see that if I actually were a spy, I wouldn’t even be recording these kinds of conversations?

I had planned on only being in Batken a few days, but after the third day and no recordings, it looked like things were not going to work out. When I was about to leave the town altogether, I met one a former participant who happened to be in town. He told me that no one will trust me unless I had someone to vouch for me and that person accompanies me to the recordings. Luckily for me, he offered to do just that. We went to the house of some friends, and we sat down and drank tea and talked. I gave my usual spiel about my research, what its scope was, who would have access to the recordings, and other main points.

Contrary to this focus on the recordings, the data and their usage, the questions I was asked by the other guests did not concern my research in the least. They asked how old I was, what my education was in, who my parents were, and whether or not I was married. I answered them all, and we continued to sit and chat about various things. After a while, my hosts brought up the recordings again and agreed to participate. I was thrilled. After the first pair finished recording, they told others that it was nothing scary, and the neighbors came pouring in. At the end of that day, we had a total of 5 hours of conversations recorded from 10 different people – a major breakthrough!

Afterwards, I talked to the former participant who made it all possible. I expressed my thanks to him and frustration with how difficult it was to find participants. He said, “You talk too much, and that’s also why they all suspect something.” I was genuinely surprised. I had thought that the more I explained the research, the more people would trust me. If I covered every relevant piece of information, I would be showing them how I had thought of possible risks and taken all the possible precautions. Instead, the more I talked, the more I was perceived to be untrustworthy.

After that, I talked less. I gave a quick overview of the project, answered any remaining questions, and then read the official informed consent document. This helped a little, but it didn’t completely relieve every participant’s reluctance. I found out that the only way I could truly make people more comfortable is by having other people, ideally from the same village or town, vouch for me. Earlier in the summer a participant made the comment that it was nice that my research assistant and I had known each other for a couple of years already. Considering it in retrospect, it seems that in a way my research assistant was vouching for me in the North. She is a Northerner herself and has thus apparently acted as a gatekeeper among her peers. However, in the South her vouching did not hold as well.

Lessons learned: The primacy of context, once again 

Our research experience last year has taught us one main lesson: there is no escape from the suspicions associated with your identity and affiliation once you are facing them. Despite the best intentions and the most conscientiously prepared ethical review report and consent documentation, there will always be people who scrutinize your motives and deny you access if you are not affiliated  with key gatekeepers or cannot inspire confidence in another way. Further, even if your research is as unpolitical as possible, it may not help to overcome interlocutors’ reluctance, however irrational that might appear to you. To them an interview with a foreigner may be simply a question of taking a risk, and the consequences may involve the government coming to their house afterwards for a discussion. In a way it seems inevitable that there will be people who don’t completely trust you when you tell them you’re a researcher. And for many people there’s probably little that you can do to assuage that misconception.

This distrustful default position assumed by many people makes sense. When people live in a relatively unstable place, but no one knows why it’s unstable, being suspicious of outsiders would appear a healthy recipe if not a good citizen’s duty. This seems to be especially true in a post- Soviet country like Kyrgyzstan, where Russian news media are dominant and inform a large part of popular opinion, and where visits by the National Security Service GKNB in the follow-up to an interaction with foreign researchers are a possible reality.

We have indicated variations of a crucial tool to overcome this distrust: networks of friends and colleagues who can either vouch for your integrity (as in the latter case) or, more so, qualify you as a trustworthy cooperation partner (as in the former). It was also shown, though, that the vouching and granting of access can still be worthless if individuals in a given group choose to reject participation (see again former account). It is also worth noting that other approaches to securing access exist and are made use of; e.g. relying on the help of local research assistants to secure access or let them do the research altogether, or trying to gather data based on commercial relations, as for instance from shop vendors or (long distance) taxi drivers.

Two major conclusions can be drawn for researchers on their way to fieldwork destinations in the post-Soviet space and beyond. First, the best intentions and preparation, and even the most benign research interests may not be sufficient to win locals over for your research. No one – literally no one – will care about the ethical review and questionnaires approved by your university review board. On the contrary, it is becoming increasingly clear that these exercises are mere formalities that help to symbolically manage insurance risks and make the research appear compliant to criteria set by people who have never done such research themselves (see the inaugural event of the ESRC Seminar Series ‘From Data to Knowledge? Understanding Peace and Conflict from afar’ for a discussion of this issue). At the end of the day it is all about having the support and trust from the right people, who are ideally based in the place where you do research. The implications of such ‘path-dependency’ on the positionality of research and the potential of including possible dissenting voices are obvious but would need a separate format to be discussed. But whether it is this ‘network-based’ approach to gaining access, or the use of material incentives to enhance cooperativeness, we would argue that all of these things should inspire a critical reflection on the meaning and possible interpretation of the data obtained, at a minimum.

A second conclusion is probably appropriate to be made in regards to researchers of higher achievement and with a greater potential to gather and publish data (and the ones building up such an existence). The worlds in which information is obtained and, respectively, published – i.e. the predominantly Anglo-American academia and the post-Soviet ‘infospace’ dominated by Russian and other, local languages – remain worlds apart. Still, with growing connections between these spaces, ever more responsibility seems to be placed on knowledge producers to represent their research field appropriately. After all, it seems that the mistrust that researchers are met with in Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere is compounded by a research and analysis industry, which, in search of tangible facts and clear statements, exposes a tendency to objectify and classify the host society and the phenomena occurring in it. Perhaps, as Heathershaw and Montgomery suggest, ‘it is sometimes better to admit that we just do not know’ even if it prevents us from making the sort of significant statement that secures us a place in the debate.

Author Biographies:

Joshua Meyer is currently a Ph.D. student in linguistics at the University of Arizona. His research interests lie in phonetics, phonology and computational approaches to language. He is also interested in language description (especially of languages of the former Soviet Union). Josh’s methods are mainly empirical, using data from speech recordings and text corpora. During the 2013-2014 academic year, Joshua was a research fellow at the Central Asian Studies Institute of the American University of Central Asia researching bilingualism and speech perception in Kyrgyz-Russian bilinguals. During the summer of 2015, Josh collected over 100 hours of conversational speech from 5 of the 7 oblasts of Kyrgyzstan to create a linguistic speech corpus.

Philipp Lottholz is a doctoral researcher at the International Development Department, University of Birmingham. He acquired his MSc International Development at IDD in Birmingham in 2012 for his dissertation on inter-ethnic reconciliation and post-conflict reconstruction in the aftermath of the 2010 ‘Osh events’. Since 2013, his doctoral research inquires the ways in which internationally dominant approaches to building peace are applied and resisted towards in Kyrgyzstan. During his research stay in 2015, Philipp was a visiting scholar at the Central Asian Studies Institute at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek. He conducted research with different peacebuilding initiatives and civil society organizations. Philipp’s research interests include peace- and statebuilding, political sociology, post-Soviet/post-Socialist studies, international political economy and post-/de-colonial International Relations.