The challenges of researching armed actors in Eastern DRC: #1
overcoming sensationalism and exoticism
Certainly, it was the mixture of a deep fascination for the subject
matter, an attraction to armed actors and an incurable penchant for
thrill-seeking that drove me to dedicate my PhD research to the
Congolese military and armed groups in Kivu. Outright admitting it is
a better strategy than pretending it was pure academic interest only.
We all know that the thrill of violence, the excitement of war, the
adrenaline of danger, the self-gratifying sense of “having been
there”, that rite de passage for becoming an übercool warzone junkie,
all play an important role in attracting people to conflict
areas-whether UN workers, journalists or researchers. And it must be
admitted-it is damn exciting the first time you meet a self-proclaimed
rebel general, sleep in a make-shift FARDC camp, pass “red axes” with
serious ambush-risk on a motor cycle, or meet Mai Mai combatants
telling you about their battlefield practices.
However, thrill, whereas perhaps a plus in journalism or for
novelists, is a bad guide in science. Although connected to the
curiosity that is the hallmark of a good ethnographer, thrill blinds
rather than enlightens, it distracts rather than helps us to focus.
Moreover, excitement leads us to fall too easily into the exoticism
trap-seeing only the bizarre, the deviant, the weird: the Witchcraft
practicing Mai Mai Militia Man, the Rapist in Uniform, the Drugged
Child Soldier, the Whoring PMF (female soldier), in brief, the Other.
But we can’t understand much of the Other- and understanding is among
the core tasks of the academic. We can only achieve it through endless
repetition, prolonged observation, painstaking re-verification and
constant participation in every-day situations rather than one-time
interviews and orchestrated field trips.
Such research can be less than adrenaline-generating-in fact, it can
be rather tedious. Repeating the same questions over
and over again-and hearing the same answers, being exposed to the same
discourses all the time, observing the same phenomena, sleeping in the
same villages eating the same food, using the same
strategies to reduce the distance with our “research subjects”: all of
this regularly generates a feeling of “déjà vu et entendu”. Moving
beyond superficial observations and conversations towards in-depth
understanding can be a painstaking and slow process, far removed from
the instant excitement of “having been there” .
These slow and repetitive processes, however, are the only way to
certify the degree to which a certain mode of thinking is shared, or a
certain practice is standardized, or to explore the subtle variations
within the same phenomenon and detect intricate patterns of causality.
Fundamental research on any subject-including
something as seemingly exciting as armed actors in Kivu-necessarily
has elements of dreariness to it. It can’t all be adrenaline and
amazement, especially when carrying out long-term ethnographic
research. And it is only long-term “immersion” in the research context
that might push us over the exoticism threshold, although even that is
no guarantee: eventually it is all about the researcher’s own
But prolonged social interaction, repeated conversations with the same
persons, living together, might modify that mind-set and help us
overcome some of the distance between us and the Other, perhaps
especially when the latter is gun-toting, uniformed and lives in what
historically has been depicted as the hotbed of barbarism-the Congo.
That, however, takes time, lots of time: it was only in the course of
my second phase of five months of research that I managed to suppress
most of the urges of sensationalism that perhaps inevitably come to
you when descending “into the bush”. And they still bubble up from
time to time. But the first step for dealing with them-and your
positionality as a researcher-is acknowledging them. It’s part of the
“hyper self-reflexivity” that post-colonial studies urge us to engage
in, a precondition for any research of a truly academic nature in the
so called “South ”. So yes, I sometimes experience it to be
ultracool to hang out with military leaders and rebel groups, but I
try to engage with my excitement, and not to exploit it. At least I
Judith Verweijen is a PhD Candidate at Utrecht University carrying out
sociological research in Kivu for her dissertation on the Congolese
military (FARDC) and the factors that shape their interaction with
civilians. Additionally, she conducts research on a variety of armed
groups in Uvira & Fizi territory ( South Kivu), exploring the
functions such groups have in their socio-economic and political
context. She is now in the 13th month of her field research, carried
out in three phases since January 2010.