The challenges of researching armed actors in Eastern DRC #4: flexibly framing “realities” by avoiding the “civil society trap”, the “car-window syndrome” and “development discourse infection”
Our observations of “reality” are structured by multiple interpretative frameworks, which are created by language and discourse, and consist of a wide range of heterogeneous elements such as culturally influenced logics, dominant narratives and, for academic researchers, the sensitizing concepts of their theoretical framework. When conducting field research in a relatively unknown environment, with different languages, habits, and modes of thinking, dominant interpretative frameworks appear to become even more influential in shaping observations, given researchers’ reduced capability to read and give meaning to unfamiliar phenomena. At the same time, researchers tend to become more depended on the interpretative frameworks of intermediaries, often the organizations and individuals that facilitate their research, for structuring their own perceptions of “reality”.
This is especially the case in Eastern DRC, where the layer of intermediaries in the form of “fixers”, guides, research assistants and interpreters can be very thick. Furthermore, many researchers prefer to work with or through certain NGOs or academic institutions. The choice to do so is understandable, as it is useful from the point of view of arranging certain practicalities, like logistics for field trips, finding research assistants and interpreters, or getting access to key informants. Furthermore, it is convenient from a social point of view, in that one has a ready-made social network to rely on. However, working through partnerships with organizations creates a dangerous dependence, which in some cases may have detrimental effects on the quality of one’s research results.
When arranging our research through a certain organization, we risk copying the discourses and perspectives that dominate within that institution and the immediate social field in which it is situated. This may reduce our interpretative horizons and make our observations of Congolese realities one-dimensional. Organizations are sometimes in majority populated by people with a similar background-whether ethnic, political, cultural, intellectual or socio-economic. For example, most of the Congolese “civil society” organizations headquartered in the urban centers (the nebulous term “civil society” is used here as a label, not as a description), consist of highly educated individuals who are relatively well-to-do and share a certain mindset and norms. Moreover, in some towns like Bukavu or Uvira, these organizations are highly politicized and many are biased in terms of adhering strongly to the “autochthonous worldview”. Therefore, despite their claims to represent “Congolese society” or certain subsections therefore, like rural populations, women, widows, orphans, the “disadvantaged and vulnerable” or other “beneficiaries”, these organizations mostly represent a small section of an elite with very specific modes of thinking.
Having carried out my first research in the DRC while doing an internship at a local “civil society” organization in Kinshasa back in 2006, it took me a while before I started to realize how contagious the discourses and worldviews of these organizations are, and how strongly they start shaping your perceptions. As the situation in Kin was considered to be a bit explosive at the time, due to the general elections, my local hosts had strictly forbidden me to roam around on foot. After about a month of observing La Poubelle’s urban landscapes through a car window, I decided I couldn’t deal with experiencing the Congo as a virtual reality. Hence, I started to occasionally hang out in the neighbourhood of my hotel in the commune of Ngiri-Ngiri, together with the hotel’s waitresses and cleaning maids. This not only felt like having escaped from prison, it incredibly enhanced my understanding of the DRC, being exposed to different discourses, habits and ways of thinking than those which dominated in my host organization. So when pondering how to organize the field research for my dissertation in Kivu in 2010, I quickly decided to go solo, to learn Swahili, and to avoid going by car all the time.
One of the foremost advantages of carrying out your research alone is that you are not confined to intermediaries of a specific breed or get entangled in certain social networks, which may leave a dominant imprint on your perceptions. It also gives you the liberty of moving around freely, sleeping over in villages, rebel headquarters, and private homes of anyone ranging from motor-cycle taxi-drivers to military commanders. This can help avoid what may be called the “car window syndrome”, an illness that anyone being caught up in a certain bubble in the DRC, whether that of Congolese “civil society” or the expat scene, risks suffering from. When one is strongly embedded in a certain environment, entering other social or geographical spheres starts feeling like an “excursion”, an exception to or deviation from what has now temporarily become “normal reality” and the standard frame of reference. Visiting rural areas, or talking to “other” categories of the population, such as small shop-keepers, petty traders, artisanal miners, customary chiefs or fishermen, becomes a descend into a different reality. Especially when organized as a day-trip by car, this may easily evoke the feeling of being on a safari or visiting the zoo.
However, the animals in the zoo put on display approach their visitors in a different manner than those in their natural habitat encountering randomly circulating exemplars of the human species. Furthermore, the visitor to the zoo starts observing the animals and their behavior according to the descriptions and the explanations given by the zookeepers. Moreover, they start naming them as indicated on the signs. In the two bubbles DRC researchers get most frequently get entrapped in, that of “civil society” and the expat scene, the reigning meta-narrative is strongly shaped by the development discourse (so masterfully dissected by Arturo Escobar in his 1994 classic “Encountering Development. The Making and Unmaking of the Third World”). Whether operating in the (discursive) fields of security, humanitarianism or development, and whether Congolese or international, almost all donor-funded or policy-oriented organizations are drenched in the idioms of the development discourse and tend to follow the latest fashions in framing the situation in the Congo. This language and these representations are highly contagious: Before we know it, we researchers too speak of “internally displaced”, “unaccompanied minors” , “conflict minerals” or “rape epidemics”, without these concepts or the causal inferences they project being empirically grounded.
This begs the question of how we can build up a certain resistance against the temptations of dominant discourses. How can we diversify the framings of “reality” we encounter in the field and reduce dependence on the intermediaries between us and that “reality”? While each researcher has to develop his or her own strategy for dealing with these questions, I won’t hesitate to recommend mine: learn the local language, start operating alone and avoid getting stuck in cars. May be this appears scary at first. At least to me it was, and when I arrived for the first time in Bukavu at the beginning of 2010, having no clue where to go or whom to contact, I felt less than at ease. Fortunately, I found terrific people in all layers of society and in every corner of the Kivus. So I came, I saw, and, I conquered my fears, while trying to retain a maximum of flexibility in framing my perceptions. This experience has been very rich, and hopefully, my data and research results are found to be so too.