On Safety While Researching in Areas of Political Conflict

In the summer of 2013, I conducted a research project on collective memory in the Southern Yemen independence movement (al-Hirak). To this day, I still reflect on some of the challenges I faced and I want to share some of my experiences if, for nothing else, to help others begin to think about potential obstacles they may come across while doing ethnographic research in unstable environments. For those used to doing research in conflict zones, much of this information will not be new, but for those considering any type of field research in politically unstable countries, I want to not only emphasize the difficulties such research can bring but also show that many of these obstacles can be overcome.

Protecting Your Interlocutors

Al-Hirak was seen by some as an illegal anti-state movement seen as a threat to the nation by the central government. Therefore, most of my interlocutors were de facto criminals. To even be speaking with me was a huge risk for many of them, and I will always be grateful for the network of people that agreed to work with me in order to have their stories told. At the same time, I had a deep moral responsibility to protect them from harm that would arise from my presence in the field, a responsibility I took very seriously.

Many of the people with whom I spoke insisted that I use their real names. They were known rebels and in hiding anyways, and they thought having their identities published in “Western media” would be a source of pride. I had to insist, however, that I would be changing all names upon the strong advice of my advisors and an insistence by the IRB. The logic was that publishing their names would incriminate them and me, and ultimately I would not be comfortable putting them in that situation and had to balance their desires with research ethics. Keeping my sources anonymous was crucial, as I did not want to further incriminate anyone in publications of my research.

Furthermore, protecting the identities of my interlocutors was important as they frequently discussed illegal activities, from as mundane as alcohol smuggling to plotting armed activity. No matter how open they were on having their names known, I felt that I had a moral responsibility to keep that information secure to avoid any negatives consequences for them from my research.

Protecting Your Research

My research was full of incriminating activity, both for myself and for my interlocutors. The last thing I wanted was to have my information stolen or discovered. Therefore, while I took my notes by old fashioned pen and paper (small enough to be concealed), each night I took the time to digitally transcribe my notes and upload them (encrypted of course), then removed all the information from my hard drive.

Whenever I had to travel through a security checkpoint, I wiped my entire hard drive clean. That way, even if my hardware was confiscated, there would be no physical evidence of anything on my person. I would never get on a plane with such politically sensitive data. I also never recorded interviews, as I felt that was simply too risky. This method of backup also had the added benefit of making sure I never lost any data.

Protecting Yourself

This is perhaps the biggest grey zone, and the most important advice I can give is to know what you are getting into. Don’t go to a country for the first time with no language ability and try to negotiate this kind of research alone without any local contacts. Also, never be afraid to ask for help from those around you. Lastly, when in doubt about the safety of a certain activity, it is better to refrain from engaging in that activity. No type of data is critical enough to take unnecessary risks, and sometimes taking a step back from fieldwork and a phone call to an advisor can help to reflect on that. A number of challenges can arise in situations like these and I am going to touch on a few.

Arrest

I was (technically) not allowed to be in South Yemen for my research, nor was I (technically) allowed to be doing research at all. Because of this, I frequently had to lie to authorities to mask my intentions and whereabouts. While I would never recommend traveling illegally inside a country (one must have permits to even leave the capital Sana’a), sometimes this is necessary. Understand the seriousness of the risk this involves and ask yourself, is your research worth being deported over? Arrested? This is where protecting my data was hugely important. In the case of arrest or detention, I NEVER had valuable data that could be used against me or my subjects, especially when traveling in a country with frequent checkpoints.

Also important was constantly staying on the move. Every night I moved to a new location, either a hotel or a friends house. I would not recommend staying in one place too long, as even citizens in the area may grow suspicious. I tended to vary my walking route by both path and time, refraining from developing any type of schedule. Lastly, staying under the radar meant I could likely not depend on the police/government in case of emergency, as this would have put me at risk. Therefore it is important to know where your nearest hospital is and have contact numbers of your embassy on hand in case of an emergency.

Harm

I spent years working on my relationships with my interlocutors, learning valuable information about them to determine if I could trust them or not. Trust was perhaps most important and what kept me the most safe. My network of friends, colleagues, and interlocutors was my safety net, and if any part of that net collapsed, there could have been serious consequences. Research in conflict zones makes the old anthropological tradition of building rapport dramatically crucial.

One major concern was getting caught up in violent clashes. Al-Hirak’s main modus operandi was large marches and protests against the government. While these almost always remained peaceful and were ethnographically rich performative events, protesters often came into contact with snipers, tanks, or even military aircraft depending on the location. Yet these were also the central sites of my research as I studied language and motifs that were used to energize the independence campaign.

It is hard to give specific advice for these situations, except to err on the side of caution. In my case, it was usually apparent when things were getting tense, and I quickly learned which types of rallies (led by which types of figures) were the most likely to turn violent. If I thought things were even slightly tense, I left. There would always be more, and it was not worth the risk.

I also had to frequently arrange meetings to interview an assortment of people. Much of the negotiation was done on my behalf, but there were still some precautions I had to take myself. As much as it may sound like a glamorous Hollywood plot, I used a burner phone. Cell phone activity is tracked by the government, and even the SIM card gets registered in your name with your passport information in many countries. Have a second unregistered phone (can be done in most shops if you pay extra) and use this for communication with high-risk contacts. I would also recommend not traveling internally, home, or internationally with the phone. I specifically used mine in the field and discarded it as soon as it was no longer necessary in my field.

Lastly, in addition to trying to use the most secure communication devices, try not to go anywhere alone, especially when meeting in private residences or outside of the city. Often meetings could not take place in public, and again this is where my trust in my interlocutors was critical. Do not get into a car with people you do not know if going to an undisclosed location unless you are sure about who those people are and how they are connected to people you trust.

As we are taught in our Anthropology courses, be reflexive. Always be aware of your positionality in the field; how your movement, your speech, your activity affects the well-being of others. This final point is not just about you and your research, it is about the safety of those in your host community, and most importantly those who are taking serious risks to help you with your research. I was fortunate that in the aftermath of my research and the selection of publications that referenced my data, I never encountered anything to suggest that my research had any damaging consequences. However, I am only certain of this three years after my data collection. At the same time, many of the people with whom I came to know have been arrested, disappeared, or killed in these past three years in relation to their work on the topics I was researching. These events have been blunt reminders of the sensitivity of certain kinds of research but also validate the importance of research in difficult situations, which makes overcoming challenges rewarding and valuable for both scholarship and knowledge production in and on your host community.

Evernote and the Anthropologist

It’s 2015 and there are a few anthropologists who are still exclusively using paper field notebooks at worst, or at best a Word document to keep an electronic record of their fieldnotes. With the plethora of new formats and solutions for record-keeping, I am a firm believer that your research is only as good as your notes, and there’s no reason not to take advantage of digital notebooks.

My first experience came during my thesis research for my M.A. I found it incredibly useful and simple to use, and as I moved beyond lit reviews and proposals into the field my comfort with Evernote paid serious dividends. I still don’t know how I would have stayed so organized if I used another platform.

In this brief article, I explain how to use Evernote as a fieldwork notebook, but it is also so much more than that. Here are 3 reasons any anthropologist should be using it:

Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with Evernote, and I don’t even recommend giving them your money. This post is entirely a result of my experience with their free service.

1. It’s multi-platform, cloud-based simplicity.

Evernote can be used from any browser, computer, tablet, smartphone, or any other device that you may have. In the field, I typically used any combination of devices. Or I may be on campus and need to access everything via a library computer. Evernote keeps everything in one place, wherever you need it.

But I’m doing research in the middle of the Amazon with no internet!

Luckily for you, Evernote has offline capabilities. For most of my last research project in Yemen, I was lucky to have an hour of internet a day. However, between the native OSX app and the iOS app, I was always able to scribble a few notes in Evernote before connecting to the internet to sync them up to the built-in cloud.

2. Research in anthropology is more than just a basic notebook or journal.

In previous decades, one could venture into the field with a pen and a notebook and produce valuable ethnographic research. In contemporary anthropology, however, research is often multisited and carried out through a variety of media since more and more of it web-based. Evernote allows you to clip media such as photos or videos, upload PDFs, keep audio interviews and typed transcripts, bookmark webpages, and basically anything else you can imagine that might be useful to you in your research. I frequently stored Youtube videos, my own photos, journal articles, class syllabi, newspaper articles, and relevant tweets.

You can even use this Chrome extension to make it fast and easy to save web content to your Evernote, allowing you to sort post and clippings into different notebooks and tag it as you go. It also archives content in case the original content becomes unavailable, while still providing you the source you need for citations.

3. Tags!

Doesn’t all that stuff in one place get messy?

Evernote makes it pretty easy to stay organized with tags, or keywords that can index certain themes in various posts. They’re hardly a new feature on the internet, but they’re a highly effective organizing tool for your multimedia note collection. I typically use tags that indicate theme (gender, class, development, etc.), location (supermarket, political rally, home, etc.), and people (usually using the names of people in interviews or events). They can also be used to indicate time period for more historical research, source, or anything else you devise for your own personal system. Evernote can then sort all your notes by tags, or just certain notebooks or media types. Looking for that one quote from that one person you interviewed three years ago? No problem! This also makes it easy to see connections between different things that may not be immediately visible.

Other useful features are “Reminders” which you can use to make sure you don’t forget about something important or help you reach your daily writing goals, “Shortcuts” which allow you to put current projects in an easy-to-find place as your collection of notes grows over time, and sharing features which allow for collaborative work.

Evernote has been a lifesaver for me, and I use it for nearly everything. I even have all my class notes from my M.A. program in there, all tagged and sorted, just in case. And I’ve surprised myself with how much I go back to old lectures, book summaries, or my standard fieldnotes. Start early, and it will pay off quickly. Don’t get stuck with only paper notebooks or a maze of Word documents on a computer that crashes.