Researching transitional justice

street art revolution

By Paul Gready

In January 2015 I spent a week in Tunisia with a group of colleagues and local partners, launching one project (the Transitional Justice Barometer) and training researchers for another (Transformative Justice in Tunisia). This blog is a reflection on the early stages of two transitional justice research projects, and covers three themes: spaces of research, thresholds of research, and translations of research.

‘Spaces of research’: the week in Tunis reminded me of the need to think about where we do research, and how we acquire knowledge, especially in new research contexts. We often focus narrowly on settings such as interviews or formal meetings and conferences, and not on the layers of ‘immersive involvement’ (Darling) that characterise and anchor good field research. On arrival in Tunis, late on a Sunday night I took a taxi to our hotel. Having check in I found my way through the building works to the lift. The lift door opened to reveal a floor to ceiling reproduction of the front page of the New York Times on the day when Ben Ali fled Tunisia. A large picture of mass and celebratory protest featured the street outside the hotel. I have never thought of a lift as a space of research before, and may never again, but the lift informed me that this was a country still proud of its revolution, and less wary of outsiders (notably the US) – in short, this was not Egypt.

A second space of research, and one that will be familiar to many, is the taxi. Lots of us perhaps treasure the taxi conversations that knit together the more conventional spaces of our research as providing insights into the views of the everyman or everywoman. One of our team was taken on a long and unrequested detour by a taxi driver to angrily show her the opulence and wealth in parts of Tunis. The message: economic power is still in the hands of the (same) few, whatever political changes there might have been. What will transitional justice have to say about this?

A final space of research is a more conventional one, a conference to launch the Transitional Justice Barometer. In one sense the space was very alien to me. I did not know most of the personalities, and some of the agencies and actors. I absorbed its messages in translation. But in other ways it was very familiar. In relation to South Africa I have written of hearings and meetings as examples of Bakhtin’s ‘carnival’: spaces temporarily free from existing social structures in which diverse voices and perspectives can be heard, and in which normal social rules and hierarchies can be inverted. Such spaces represent the promise of the renewal of a society. At this conference, civil society actors harangued representatives from the Truth and Dignity Commission; Islamist and secular organisations shared the floor; everyone had an opinion, and no-one expressed their opinion briefly. One of my colleagues remarked wryly that Tunisia is a(nother) place where ‘every public meeting is a hearing’. So we sat, and listened, and learned a great deal.

‘Thresholds of research’: much transitional justice research is done in collaborations between academics and other partners – transitional justice mechanisms, such as truth commissions, NGOs, social movements, inter-governmental agencies, and so on. Our Tunisia research is no exception; the research is being done by Tunisians, mainly working for NGOs. Such partnerships require the building of trust, in order to secure access. Researchers are given privileged access to meetings, documents, and insights, and they may offer in return to do a piece of work for the partner. Personal relationships thicken, and assumptions are made. I’ve supervised several PhD students who have faced assumptions from the local partner that that they are essentially on-side. The expectation is that their research will reflect positively on the work of the partner, enhancing their status, serve as an advocacy document on their behalf. But what many researchers, including my PhD students, find is a mixed picture, including both good practice but also practice that is open to question and even critique. How does a researcher address this ethical dilemma, in which critique can be experienced by the partner as betrayal?

Eyben has described this dilemma in development research as ‘hovering on the threshold’. The researcher is best positioned ‘as neither insider nor outsider, retaining the empathy for the insider’s position while sufficiently distant to cultivate a critical faculty’. This ‘multi-positioned fieldwork’ is challenging, but exciting too. One of my PhD students suggests that research on the threshold should be governed by four principles: any criticism is constructive (if x approach is problematic in your view, what other approach might work); analysis is contextualised (for example, be realistic about resource constraints, and do not suggest that the agency save the world); acknowledge multiple realities, and not just your own; and recognise good intentions (very few agencies intentionally perform poorly or adopt bad practice) (Harding).

In Tunisia we arrived at the threshold of our partner organisations. Our task is somewhat eased by the fact that the research is to be conducted with, and not explicitly on, the partner organisations. But the divide is not an absolute one. As the research unfolds we will undoubtedly need to use and possibly develop the ethical compass provided by my PhD student.

Translations of research’: there are many ways in which translation matters in research. In the transformative justice training there were numerous examples of attempts to muddle towards a shared understanding, across linguistic, cultural and political divides. Trainees, for example, struggled to understand the concept of sampling, until a colleague stripped the concept down to its essence: you need to interview 40 people, how will you select them? Key learning point: build up to the concept, rather than starting from the concept and working down to the detail.

A second set of examples relate to language (mainly Arabic) and translation. Our transformative justice training starts by engaging with two key concepts: theories of change, and power. We are interested in change – experiences of change, aspirations for change, spaces where change is occurring – but the field research in Egypt has illustrated that change is a very difficult concept to research. People often focus on the micro-dynamics of change (‘small achievements’), feel that no change has occurred, or indeed that change as represented by the revolution was unsettling and undesirable (leading to increased economic and physical insecurity). We talked through these concerns in Tunis, and it seems likely that there will again be a range of responses to change from interviewees in Tunisia.

Moving on to power, there are various words in Arabic for power. What are these words, what meanings do they have, and how – if at all – do they relate to notions of transformation? Should we ask several questions about power, using different terms? At the training workshops we also discussed the relationship between research and power. Can research challenge power imbalances and bring about change – if so, is this leverage mainly due to research processes or research outputs? Our hope is to move to a second phase of research that is closer to participatory action research. At the training we did not answer all of these questions. That was not the point. We aired the issues, debated the dilemmas – and, I think, came to share a desire to collaboratively develop a form of research that is as transformative as possible, for all involved.

Transitional justice research in Tunisia and elsewhere is by definition concerned with understanding patterns of continuity and change. Deepening our understanding of such patterns requires engagement with multiple spaces of learning, multiple thresholds to learning, and multiple translations for learning.

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