Conducting fieldwork is indispensable for researchers to understand and produce knowledge of the turbulent Middle East. For this to be successful one needs to develop a wide personal network, maintain it, and constantly expand it.
Make no mistake, building and sustaining a network can be arduous, requiring dedication and time. It is an art unto itself, which goes beyond the short-term contractual relationship with passing contacts. The relationships that usually matter are more personal, can be transformed into valuable friendships, and enable opportunities for partnership and cooperation, with both sides having a common interest in developing skills and producing knowledge.
That researchers need personal networks in the Middle East is unquestionable, because the region usually functions through personal relationships. However, there is no single recipe for how to do so. One of the finest things about traveling to the field is that you meet people, or should, from all walks of life. Most of those with whom you interact potentially add to your understanding—janitors, hotel receptionists, taxi drivers and barbers (who love to talk), local researchers, or senior officials with whom you arrange to meet (if they don’t cancel). It is the willingness to listen to people and, of course, nod convincingly when hearing conspiracy theories, that help to develop a wide network.
That said, ultimately you are the architect of your own networks. Meetings with some interlocutors will be the first and the last you have, while you may choose to remain in touch and reconnect occasionally with others. It is the third category that interests us here: those individuals who are happy to trade their local knowledge if they feel that they can get something in exchange. However, this has less to do with money than with mutual interest in a research area. Many people respond when they feel an urge to disseminate the information that they will share with you. Similar concerns between you and someone on the ground is often a valuable instrument in advancing knowledge of a particular situation.
I have experienced this personally on many occasions. I met one of my good friends, a researcher and a humanitarian worker, while on a field trip to Jordan. An official meeting of 40–50 minutes turned into a longer discussion over a dinner of fine Middle Eastern dishes. It didn’t take much time to understand that we had many interests in common. We even invited each other to our weddings. Professionally, our interchanges were mutually beneficial. Our shared concerns meant we were encouraged to exchange on a variety of matters, adding to our understanding.
The other favorite story of mine started in one of Amman’s busiest streets where I met a Syrian journalist from Dar‘a. A meeting that was supposed to last for an hour turned into a long discussion that went beyond Syria politics. This led to the idea of working together on a short project that involved engaging in several long, in-depth interviews. The next step will be cooperation on a larger project.
Maintaining contacts successfully is not easy because it means allocating what is most valuable in life, namely time. Remembering your contacts only when there is breaking news, or not being available when they need you, does more harm than good. For a network of contacts to be truly effective means that researchers need to invest in the gamut of interactions that make up a human relationship, not reduce everything to a functional task of extracting information.
That is not to say that information from the ground is irrelevant. Of course it is not. But when access to information is prioritized over human relations, it raises ethical questions and indicates to interlocutors that they only serve as your tool. Few people like to be reduced to that and it can weaken relationships.
In the Middle East people are sensitive to gestures of recognition. Offering a small gift to an interviewee can go a long way. However, this does not mean that you are buying their collaboration, and thinking such a thing would be a mistake. Rather, such gestures create a positive atmosphere that makes interaction, and an exchange of information, much easier. Most people one interviews appreciate it when you take the time to think about them before your discussion.
Networks, by their very nature, are dynamic. People come and go, marry, emigrate, or quit research altogether. While some bonds may last for a long time, eventually it is very difficult to maintain a large network for a long time. Adding new people to your list of contacts is not just exciting and challenging, it is crucial. Staying within the same circles can often mean that the same ideas and outlooks circulate again and again. To have an interlocutor with whom one always agrees can lead to ignoring valuable alternative views, to the detriment of a more balanced understanding of a given situation.
Therefore rejuvenating one’s network of relationships while also maintaining ties with previous contacts, particularly personal ties that display appreciation of an individual, may be as close to a recipe for successful research as one will get.