Invisible voices in the production of knowledge

In the Bukavu Series, researchers from two Congolese and two European universities explore how they interrogate violence in the DRC.

Residents in Beni region greet peacekeepers passing by in a MONUSCO armored personnel carrier. Image credit Sylvain Liechti for UN Photo via Flickr (CC).

In early 2018, a group of 30 researchers based in eastern Congo and Europe who all write on conflict affected areas began a collective and reflexive process to give space to those voices that often remain invisible in the production of knowledge. Over the last year-and-a-half, these researchers have critically examined their own positionality and (in)visibility in the cycles of research they’ve been part of. In addition, they explored the ethical and emotional dilemmas they face when conducting research in conflict affected areas. A number of workshops initiated by researchers from two Congolese and two European universities provided the necessary space to share experiences, reflect on their roles and positions and think about ways forward. A collective writing process offered an additional opportunity to share and critically reflect about each other’s positions and experiences. The result of this process is a series of blog posts known as the Bukavu Series.

Many researchers based in the global North who do fieldwork in the global South engage research assistants based in our areas of research, close to or in the field. Experiences learnt that at best, their contribution is mentioned in a footnote of articles or reports written by global North researchers. At worst, they are kept completely invisible, this despite their own agency, and crucial roles in the research cycle. Recent debates in development and conflict studies have challenged the often-institutionalized practices, mechanisms and requirements that keep research collaborators and assistants who are based in the areas of research, silent and invisible. Yet, many of these debates are often limited to discussions between “lead researchers from the North.” Emerging debates explore how to redefine research collaborations, but hardly ever give a voice to the research collaborators themselves. They reflect on how to improve the position of locally based researchers, but seldom challenge existing logics guiding the production of knowledge and defining the respective roles of those involved. They commit to increased visibility for research collaborators and assistants but tend to disconnect this from the skewed power relations in which they are embedded. Often guided by a paternalistic reflex, in the end, these debates risk reconfirming researchers living and working in areas of research to the margins of research rather than reversing existing logics.

The renewed attention for the position of research collaborators and assistants based in the areas of research is not, in fact, all that new. It connects to a rich literature on research ethics, which emerged within different disciplines as early as the 1960s. The constant recycling of themes and critiques suggests that despite the recognition of the issue, little has been done to reverse the silencing of these voices in a process of knowledge production dominated by academics based in the global North. Although these contributors play a crucial role in forging access to difficult areas and source persons, as well as the collection of data, the production of preliminary research reports and eventually also the successful dissemination of research results, their role has seldom been made visible in research outputs. Their personal ambitions, priorities, agendas and challenges are hardly ever priorities in research cycles, nor has their role been recognized in the institutional field of research, guided by individual performance records and the “subsequent single-authored peer reviewed article standard.”

There seems to be an overall consensus to critically consider how to fully integrate research collaborators and assistants based in the areas of research into processes of knowledge production. Yet, this can only be done when the collaborators themselves are directly included in the debate. They not only “help” to gain access to the field and collect data, but also co-define the field. They read and interpret it and are involved in a constant process of co-production. Most scholars would not have made it through their PhD research without their collaborators’ contributions and guidance. Many research projects would have failed to come up with tangible results without the direct involvement and engagement of research collaborators and assistants. So not only should their roles be recognized in the final outputs of research; they should also be allowed to take up equal responsibility for these outputs, equal participation in the design of project cycles and equal ownership of the research data.

The blog posts presented in the Bukavu Series critique the existing logics behind the production of knowledge but also reflect on our own responsibilities. The different contributions call for a more inclusive debate and ask for the recognition of the ethical and emotional challenges that research collaborators and assistants face. One of these challenges is related to the strategies they have to employ in order to navigate and negotiate access to the field. Navigating in conflict-settings requires a rich set of navigation skills. Several blog posts discuss the incompatibility between research projects’ expectations and the local field complications, which may jeopardize their functioning. These incompatibilities are not only prevalent when assistants negotiate access to the field but are often embedded within the methodological set-up of research projects as such.

A second challenge is related to collaborators’ and assistants’ interactions with populations in contexts of violence, conflict, or economic hardship. As some blog posts witness, research collaborators and assistants in the field often struggle with responding, or failing to respond, to people’s financial expectations, and their questions around communication of research results to the local level.  Besides the inherent ethical issues, this oblivion of restitution also complicates any potential return to these populations for future research activities.

Another oft-neglected challenge that this series tackles, is how to deal with the emotional dimensions of doing research. As some of the authors show, the research in conflict-affected environments can have profound effects on researchers’ mental well-being. It is often assumed that local embeddedness facilitates researchers’ navigation options. However, doing research “at home” comes with a wide range of difficult challenges that are largely ignored by the wider research community and those funding the research. Various posts indeed reflect on researchers’ entanglements and traumas, and they shed light on strategies that might reduce the risk of traumatization.

A final and obvious challenge is how to deal with a lack of visibility. Several contributors claim the right to be recognized as full partners in research projects. Some blog posts put this claim in a broader perspective and critique the way in which the hegemonic model of academic knowledge construction entrenches inherently skewed power relations. Particularly when not embedded within the formal statute of PhD student or professor, the role of research collaborators is almost automatically confined to that of “research assistants.” This implicitly or explicitly pushes collaborators into a position of subordination. On top of this, local budgetary limitations are a huge constraint to the development of a locally-driven research dynamic and reduce most research to commissioned work. This kind of research is too often guided by the interests of the donors and/or academics in the North and does not necessarily respond to local priorities or interests.

If the aim is to move forward and build a research environment based on equal partnerships, we must progress from thinking to action. Research collaborators and assistants should get the necessary space to raise their voices and express their constraints. This is not only a moral obligation but also a necessary condition to transform the production of knowledge and academia at large.

About the Author

Godefroid Muzalia heads the research center Groupe d’Etudes sur les Conflits – Sécurité Humanitaire.

Koen Vlassenroot is professor in Political Science and Director of the Conflict Research Group at Ghent University.

Aymar Nyenyezi, is professor at Université Catholique de Louvain and the Institut Supérieur de Développement Rural.

An Ansoms is professor at the Université Catholique de Louvain.

Emery Mudinga is professor at the Institut Supérieur de Développement rural.

Further Reading