Conducting Fieldwork in Authoritarian States: Advice for New Researchers

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Political scientists Lee Morgenbesser (Griffith University, Australia) and Meredith L. Weiss (University at Albany, SUNY) have collaborated on a new article for Asian Studies Review, “Survive and Thrive: Field Research in Authoritarian Southeast Asia.” In this helpful survey, Morgenbesser and Weiss provide an overview of the challenges that researchers—particularly those new to the field, such as graduate students—can encounter as they conduct fieldwork in countries under authoritarian regimes where civil liberties and political rights are not guaranteed. Offering useful advice and examples from their own time in the field, Morgenbesser and Weiss have prepared a guide that should be read by all new researchers who anticipate similar constraints, regardless of their academic field or country of specialization.

To learn more about their work, I interviewed Lee Morgenbesser and Meredith L. Weiss by email for #AsiaNow.

MEC: You note at the outset of your article that scholarship on field research is “a limited genre, at best,” as very few academics study the act of research itself. What prompted you to write an article on fieldwork, and what gap in the literature were you trying to fill?

LM/MLW: We had two motivations for writing this article. In a professional sense, when we began doing field research within Southeast Asia, we did it somewhat blindly. Before heading to the region, neither of us had read a “step-by-step guide” on accessing archives, conducting interviews, and carrying out participant observation. The aim then was to offer such a guide (as best we could) to graduate students, early career academics, and anyone else seeking to conduct field research in Southeast Asia. In a scholarly sense, the literature on the ins and outs of field research methods is almost exclusively limited to democratic settings. We also felt there was a need to emphasize the advantages of field research as a methodology, especially its capacity to show how statistical data points cannot always be taken at face value. Given the distinct challenges and opportunities of doing research in authoritarian regimes, this sizeable gap needed to be filled in the context of Southeast Asia and hopefully other regions of the world.

MEC: “You can’t be over-prepared” is a theme running below much of the advice you offer to new field researchers. For those who have focused more on their academic preparation—conducting literature reviews, mastering survey tools and computer programs, learning languages, and so forth—what are some of the pragmatic preparations they should make before departing for the field?

LM/MLW: Some of the key preparations are actually the most obvious. Having a prospectus or plan that clearly specifies what needs to happen—how many interviews, with what mix of people; what archives to explore, for how long; how many focus group discussions or how large a survey; or whatever else the research requires—is necessary. At the same time, that plan needs to leave room in the schedule and budget for improvisation. Those mandates apply to any field research, but all the more so where the work is difficult to pursue. Too often, though, PhD students in particular get caught up in their literature review, research questions, and enumeration of methods, and skimp on details of what they will actually do in the field. And especially useful for such readiness is at least one preparatory research trip, to facilitate setting realistic targets.

In addition, particularly in illiberal or otherwise dicey settings, researchers should make sure they have insurance if it seems possible they might need to exit quickly, that they have registered their presence with their embassy or high commission, that they have ensured key people in their lives have their local contact details; basic equipment like a MiFi with low-cost international data (Singapore’s telecoms offer some good options for Asia) might also be really useful to acquire in advance, particularly given the imperative of being able to backup data online at frequent, regular intervals. Such steps are quickly accomplished, but often overlooked. 

MEC: As you point out in several places, conducting research in countries under authoritarian regimes often requires creativity and circumspection, such as finding alternate ways to describe a research project without using politically sensitive words. In my own career, I’ve heard dozens of China scholars recount war stories about presenting “gifts” of tea and cigarettes to archive staff members to pave the way for access. A young scholar might think that finding ways to work the system is simply par for the course in fieldwork. But when does flexibility and creativity go too far, in your opinion? What are the red lines that inexperienced researchers need to guard against crossing?

LM/MLW: The red lines for researchers arise when they place themselves (or those helping them) in an ethically uncertain situation, which raises unnecessary mental and physical risks. This boundary can exist in a formal sense (such as the laws of a country) or informal sense (such as social customs of a population). On many occasions, gaining access to archives, interviewees, and participants demands nothing more than a respect for balancing local customs with the standards of university ethics review boards. Instead of offering monetized gifts, a donation to local institution such as a school or pagoda goes a long way. To anticipate risk, however, researchers—especially graduate students working in the region for the first time—need to seek prior guidance from experienced scholars, embedded journalists, and other individuals with knowledge of these explicit and implicit expectations. This requires them to build networks many months—or sometimes years—in advance of working in authoritarian Southeast Asia.

MEC: You acknowledge that disseminating research findings can require a scholar to balance competing personal interests: they want to share their work widely (and need to, for career advancement), but doing so might invite scrutiny from the country where that research was conducted and result in a loss of access. How can a researcher attempt to resolve this dilemma?

LM/MLW: There is no easy solution to such a dilemma—beyond leaving work likely to garner negative attention until late in one’s career, which is hardly an optimal solution. A partial workaround is to publish critical but balanced short pieces in readily, widely read open-access online venues such at the ANU’s New Mandala. Having established a reputation as thoughtful and fair, however also pointed in one’s analysis, can go a long way, especially since such pieces are far more likely to be read in-country (or anywhere else) than more involved academic pieces.

For doctoral students, the thesis is itself an issue, though. Students who have reason to worry about access or other problems should their work circulate widely may ask their university not to make their thesis openly available through the university or repositories such as UMI or ProQuest. The student’s referees or other advisors/readers can then speak to the work in greater detail than might otherwise be the case in their letters, to lend potential employers or others assurance of the work’s focus and quality.

Finally, researchers at any stage might consider different angles to their work. For instance, they might publish empirically rich, but less risky (whether that means less normatively loaded, or focused on/excluding specific types of material) work in the local language, to make sure at least a reasonable proportion of their work can help inform wider scholarly and/or policy conversations, but publish work more likely to get them in trouble in English, in non-open-access academic outlets. Clearly, this approach is neither failsafe in terms of avoiding scrutiny nor ideal in terms of owning one’s critiques, but being able to continue the research is a necessary part of the goal.

Also, despite publisher pressure and emerging norms of circulating any and all work on social media, researchers worried about their work’s being read by the wrong people should avoid doing so, especially given the deep and increasing penetration of Facebook and other social-media platforms across Asia—and might consider minimizing their presence on social media altogether.