Diane Singerman wrote:Scholars who conduct comparative research in repressive societies already face many challenges. In what ways will the requirements and/or influence of DA-RT intentionally or intentionally privilege quantitative research in scholarly research, external funding criteria, and graduate training?
The adoption of the DA-RT guidelines has made research even harder for political scientists working in non-democratic and war torn settings. As it is, there are many countries where few foreign scholars conduct extensive fieldresearch, in part, because of the authoritarian nature of the regime (e.g., Angola, Chad, Eritrea, Sudan) or because of ongoing conflict (e.g., Somalia, parts of northern Nigeria). For local researchers, the challenges may be even greater for political reasons. The DA-RT guidelines create new disincentives for comparative qualitative work in such contexts, and will scare junior scholars from embarking on precisely the type of research that is needed most to understand the countries we know the least about.
And while it is important to do quantitative research, it is insufficient for understanding complex processes and dynamics on the ground. Moreover, it is absurd to imagine there is any substitute for quantitative research since the types of questions and insights are so different in nature from what is yielded by qualitative research. Both are necessary but they serve a different purpose.
I do not disagree with the overall aims of the DA-RT guidelines. It is important to show how one’s conclusions are backed up by strong evidence. Someone who has studied a similar context will have the ability to assess the plausibility of the findings if the author provides adequate information about the research process, sources, and context.
What does replication mean in an authoritarian context? I recently conducted research in Morocco and Western Sahara (known to Moroccans as the southern provinces). During the time I was in Western Sahara, eight foreign journalists were expelled from the area. I was acutely aware of the political sensitivities of carrying out research in this region even though I was not studying the conflict itself. But it was also one of the most fascinating places where I have done interviews in my three decades of conducting field research throughout Africa, in part, because women hold an unusually high position in this matrilineal society. I was only able to gain access because of a serendipitous encounter with a Moroccan who had worked in these provinces for six years with UNHCR and who had exceptionally good access and excellent contacts. The notion that my exact project could be replicated in the same way as a quantitative project could be verified is absurd. There are only a handful of political scientists who have worked in Western Sahara and most have looked at the issues from a more macro-perspective or with access primarily to the Algerian camps where POLISARIO is based, not in Morocco. But looking at the DA-RT guidelines, one wonders how a qualitative study of the kind I conducted could be published. Moreover, the kinds of questions I am asking cannot be addressed through a quantitative study and the secondary literature is almost non-existent.
There seem to be protections for people who work in authoritarian contexts in the guidelines, but when editors actually see the kinds of restrictions the Human Subjects committees place on us, I wonder how much flexibility there will be in practice. I worry about how aware those implementing the guidelines will be of the ethical considerations in and challenges of doing research in non-democratic and conflicted contexts.
Even interviews that are not particularly sensitive can be barred from being revealed publicly and must be destroyed after a certain amount of time to meet IRB requirements, especially if one is working in a non-democratic context. The people who serve on the IRB committees also don’t always fully understand the research context and place restrictions based on their own limited knowledge of a country. The DA-RT guidelines refer to such situations as being an exception, but as IRB restrictions and requirements expand, I wonder how exceptional these cases are going to be. I worry that in actually implementing these guidelines, many of us are going to find ourselves caught between a rock and a hard place.
But even if there are no onerous IRB restrictions, do people who are interviewed really want their interviews made public? Will they have a say in any of this? If they know the interviews are going to be made public, how will this affect interviewees’ willingness to be fully open and honest even if the interviews aren’t associated with a name or affiliation? Often the content of the interview will reveal who the person is to those who know the context, especially for those of us who do elite interviews. Won’t that erode trust and confidentiality in the interviewer? I study women and politics and women’s movements in Africa and I can’t imagine people would want some of the things they say publicly attributed to them or their organization or even to the women’s movement and its opponents. They don’t want their strategies, jealousies, frustrations or weaknesses revealed to their competitors, opponents, or people they are lobbying. The same is true for those who oppose the women’s organizations. If you have ever been interviewed by someone else you will know exactly what I mean, even if you have nothing in particular to hide.
I have interviewed people in contexts of war, where people do nasty things to each other. In the course of interviewing, people have confided in me about other politicians who tried to kill them or succeeded in killing their loved ones, admissions of stealing, of being raped, of having affairs with key leaders, of sabotaging industrial production to increase prices, and so on. Most of these specific comments should never be made public in any form, in part, because they are potentially libelous. But one might want to write generally about a certain related phenomenon based on such comments. How would one provide evidence without providing actual texts of interviews that people who made the statements never dreamed would be made public?
I am concerned that the benefits of these new requirements do not outweigh the transaction costs of meeting them, especially in authoritarian and conflicted environments and for comparativists. They run the risk of creating serious ethical dilemmas and force researchers to violate IRB requirements if they comply. APSA and the journals need to give more consideration to how the DA-RT initiative will affect the whole field and find other ways to ensure greater rigor without making publication impossible for those of us working in challenging environments.