Year after year, students opt to enroll in programs focusing on the Middle East, and some of those students may also decide to visit the region for research—to gather accurate data, to conduct interviews, or to look for primary sources.
Research on Middle Eastern issues has been conducted extensively since the beginning of this century. The 9/11 attacks sparked renewed interest in the Middle East, resulting in a series of research projects on topics such as security, religion, democracy, and development-related topics in this region. The on-going Arab uprisings and widespread turmoil in the Middle East have given these historical events a new intensity. Therefore, it is likely that the Middle East will continue to occupy a focal point of research interests in the future. Thus, there is a pressing need to discuss the process of field research involved.
I define field research as a method of Social Science or Humanities that involves the on-site gathering and evaluation of authentic data during a research stay of several days, weeks, months, or years. The objectives of the study and the discipline of an on-site-investigation may vary, which leads to different approaches such as the use of primary sources and/or face-to-face interviews with relevant agents, or the consultation of local and regional publications. It is also obvious that other approaches, for instance the observation of people or description of activities, might play a main role.
Many academic projects require fieldwork because the literature available to researchers in their home countries is limited. Moreover, many studies would not be feasible without field research, and would lack any significant explanatory power if they were only based on secondary literature. To be in the field can furthermore open new perspectives and create new channels for acquiring information.
Taking into account my own experience in the Middle East—in Lebanon, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, and Syria—while completing my M.A. and Ph.D., my article examines different dimensions of field research in a conflict zone. I attempt to address the main sets of practical, theoretical, and methodological challenges and considerations “in the field” in the Middle East: the lack of primary sources, gaining trust, and the omnipresence of the revolution.
I argue that the classical research methods are not useful for the systematic evaluation of the problems, approaches, and concepts associated with research in difficult environments. One of the main problems that I was confronted with on-site, and one which many social
scientists encounter too, is that “traditional” Western theory and methodology adequately prepare undergraduate and graduate students for carrying out research in their own societies, but neither prepare them for dealing with difficult research circumstances, nor do they train students for conflict areas in post-traumatic societies.Such history (and political science) courses seem to be functional and have roots in European reality.
I thus argue that a critical reflection of these issues should take place in the related
methodology courses that prepare students to conduct research, specifically in regards to Middle Eastern Studies. However, these shortfalls on the field raise the question of the feasibility of conducting field research in difficult research settings and illustrate the importance of developing strategies necessary for successfully overcoming obstacles.
Field researchers who are well-informed and knowledgeable of cross-disciplinary Middle Eastern Studies, and who are equipped with technical skills and field research experience, will enhance the success of their field work. Furthermore, a certain amount of socializing, cultural competence in dealing with post-war societies, empathy, and stamina on the part of the researcher are sine qua non to compensate for deficits, special conditions, and restrictions in conflict zones that may hinder the research process.
You can find the full text of the article in: Historical Methods: A Journal of Quantitative and Interdisciplinary History, 2012 (45):3, 143-149 under the title: “Practical, Theoretical and Methodological Challenges of Field Research in the Middle East.”
Dr Philipp Amour is a visiting postdoctoral fellow at the DPIR (University of Oxford). In his PhD thesis, he examined the transformation of the Palestinians and the institution-building process from 1948–1983. More specifically, he challenged prevailing orthodoxies on the history and politics of the Palestinians and investigated the role of the intelligentsia in building para-state institutions and in fostering socio-economic and political changes within the Palestinians in exile. Philipp Amour is co-founder and member of the Committee of the International Society for Cultural History (ISCH). His current research examines Swiss-Arab Relations and the political turmoil in the Middle East.