For researchers studying the dynamics of borders and border regions, field observation is a necessity. However, since March, the Covid-19 pandemic has meant that large swathes of the world are no longer as accessible as they were previously, because travel has been restricted.
This situation has significantly altered the way scholars have conducted research. The virus has put on hold many aspects of research plans, such as workshops, roundtables, and on-the-ground interviews. In order to compensate for this, researchers have built partnerships with journalists, other researchers, and organizations in the field, creating alternative ways of pursuing knowledge under difficult conditions. Such methods have also connected those partners with a global audience of readers. In short, research methods under Covid-19 have helped to give a voice to local actors.
Giving locals in the field a voice doesn’t necessarily mean empowering them politically. Nor does it imply that researchers are doing them a favor. Instead, it creates relationships based on acquiring quality knowledge and analysis of social events from a local perspective—in other words, a bottom-up approach. When I began working as a local researcher and publishing material for Carnegie at the beginning of 2014, the central theme of my work was centered around the question of how to grasp information coming from the field. I came to see the importance of understanding local events on their terms, rather than imposing concepts or assumptions from outside.
Working remotely isn’t something new. In Syria, for instance, the Assad regime has long taken steps to cut the country off from the outside world, out of a fear that certain information or facts might threaten its authority. The regime did so partly by impeding social research. However, such research has become increasingly necessary since Syria’s uprising began in March 2011, not only because of the urgency of understanding the mechanisms behind the violence, but also to better know how to prevent violence in the future.
Broadly speaking, building knowledge is based, ideally, on reason and rationality, whereas violence relies on emotion and impulse. Thus, the Assad regime’s hostility toward precision in the production of knowledge set the conditions for the severe violence that took place in Syria. Despite the restrictions imposed by such violence and by the regime itself, researchers nevertheless developed methods of working remotely to pursue their examination of events and keep Syria connected to the outside world. These methods largely involved working through local networks.
The Covid-19 pandemic compelled researchers to build on these previously developed methods, while also changing the logic of their research and closely interacting with actors in the field. For instance, during a recent project on the Syrian-Turkish border, I carried out a study in partnership with a journalist based in Turkey. We both conducted several interviews with local actors and residents, and later organized an online roundtable inviting those who were informed about the dynamics in the border zone. The result was not just an article about the Syrian-Turkish border, but also the achievement of a collective project on an issue that touched the lives of locals directly and provoked the interest of readers outside Syria.
As researchers have established partnerships with actors on the ground, they have also built ties with local civil society organizations. For example, I am currently writing a research paper on the Syrian-Iraqi border with a colleague that will be partly informed by our interactions with two civil society organizations based in the field. The organizations, which have generously provided us with contacts and have worked with us to analyze information and place it in its proper context, are Masarat, which focuses on minorities, collective memory, and interfaith dialogue in Iraq, and IMPACT, which focuses on topics related to civil society and policy-oriented research. In addition, context analysis is a core theme across IMPACT’s programs. Collaborations with such organizations help to guarantee the quality of information gathered through regular discussions of local events.
The restrictions imposed by Covid-19 have deprived researchers of the possibilities of ethnographic observation. However, the partnership model that has emerged has had the advantage of involving a variety of actors in a shared process of knowledge production. Such a research model is helping to connect local actors and issues to global research centers with their wide readership. In doing so, it provides readers across the world with a sharpened understanding of the events and dynamics shaping the region.