World Congress for Middle Eastern Studies

Barcelona, July 19th - 24th 2010


Practical, Theoretical and Methodological Challenges of Field Research in the Middle East (030) - NOT_DEFINED activity_field_Panel

· NOT_DEFINED date: MON 19, 5.00-7.00 pm

· NOT_DEFINED institution: University of Fribourg (Switzerland)

· NOT_DEFINED organizer: Philipp Amour

· NOT_DEFINED language: English

· NOT_DEFINED description: Each year many students commence their PhD on a topic involving the Middle East and, over the duration of their research, may visit the Middle East in order to retrieve data, conduct interviews or look for primary sources. This process, in itself, needs to be analysed. The Panel on ‘Practical, Theoretical and Methodological Challenges of Field Research in the Middle East’ sets out to address the complexity of ‘on-site research’ in the Middle East. This Panel claims that fieldwork requires a particular kind of preparation and is tied to certain problems and challenges. It stresses that discussion of sensitive issues and access to archival material is contingent upon developing and establishing a relationship of trust between the interviewer and the interviewee. It also emphasises that the ‘success’ of fieldwork is dependent on social competence, empathy, stamina and powers of comprehension on the part of the researcher. The different Papers document impressions and experiences in the field parameterise them and illuminate them methodically. Furthermore potential solutions shall be proposed on that basis.

Chair: Dr. Ann M. Lesch, The American University in Cairo

Paper presenter: Lexine T. Hansen, Michigan State University (USA), “Developing Methods on the Ground: Understanding Social Networks in Rural Jordan”
Authors: Dr. John Kerr & Lexine T. Hansen
Researchers usually design research plans long before entering the field. In the study locale, we often must move in unanticipated directions, following discrepancies in the data and adapting our theories to local contexts. Sometimes we find an issue unexplored in the literature and must develop appropriate methods to examine it. Sometimes we find that the theoretical framing of an issue becomes an aspect of study. Adapting theories to Middle Eastern contexts may present both types of field research challenges. This paper discusses how a water conservation education study in rural Jordan tackled these challenges and developed a deep understanding of the situation which will inform revised water conservation efforts. Studying water conservation programs in rural Jordan, I found that conservationists designed programs for geographic areas with locale-specific information. However, in the two rural communities I studied, women seldom developed meaningful relationships outside of their family groups. What they learned in programs did not seem to spread to their neighbors as designers expected. Thus, rather than considering water conservation groups as a whole entity for learning, I had to uncover how women’s social networks shaped these groups and the relationships within them. While much social network research uses quantitative methods to map social relationships and measure their strength, such an approach was inappropriate for understanding the process by which women in my case communities learned new information and passed it through their social networks. Instead, I developed qualitative interview techniques to investigate women’s social networks and the implications of these networks on how water conservation information spreads. The interviews were singularly challenging because of rural Jordanian social contexts: it is difficult to find housing for a single foreign female researcher or negotiate appropriate research assistance; even to convey key concepts that do not match with Jordanian perspectives is challenging. Then, in investigating women’s social networks, I found conceptual differences between program designers and local women. Water conservation programs understood a community as a spatially-bound group, so target populations were the residents of certain villages or districts. However, women related within communities of belonging, primarily their kinship networks. Rather than being bound geographically, kinship groups in Jordan are often distant yet these connections are women’s primary means of accessing and spreading new information. Water conservation programs should then be focused on women in key kinship roles to spread important messages.

Paper presenter: Katarzyna Kleiber, Adam Mickiewics University (Poland), “Studying Iranian Art of the Twentieth Century: Practical and Methodological Difficulties of Field Research”
Each year a set of texts dealing with Iranian art from the last century becomes bigger and bigger owing to the contributions of both Western and Iranian scholars. Unfortunately, the considerable outgrowth of these writings is rarely accompanied by considerations of how to collect data and process it. Thus, in an attempt to fill this gap, the aim of my paper is to share some practical and methodological reflections on field research into Iranian art of the twentieth century based on my work in Tehran in January 2009. It goes without saying that writing on history ( including art history, of course) is not likely to be taken seriously as scholarship if it only cites secondary sources, as it does not indicate that original research has been done. However, in the case of fieldwork in Iran, this prerequistite to innovative study can only rarely be fully accomplished. Allowing for and taking into account my personal experiences during my stay in Iran, as well as observations made by other PhD candidates with whom I spoke, I have specified three main challanges of field research into Iranian art of the twentieth century encountered by Western scholars. Each paragraph of my paper is devoted to one of these problems, except the final one which offers a concluding discussion. The first difficulty, a practical one, regards the access to visual or textual data itself. The second challenge, a methodological one, concerns the terminology and interpretive strategies employed by Iranian art professionals. The third and final problem touches on the quality of the data gathered during fieldwork in Iran.

Paper presenter: Philipp Amour, University of Fribourg (Switzerland), “Reflections on Field Research in the Middle East”
I regard historical fieldwork as a method of Historical Sciences that involves „on-site‟ gathering and evaluation of data during a research stay of several weeks, months or years. In my paper I will try to reflect my own experience in Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, and Syria between 2007 and 2009 in conducting Interviews and retrieving data. It was at the very beginning of my research stay in 2007, that I decided to document my impressions and experiences in the field, to parameterize them, to illuminate them methodically and to propose potential solutions on that basis.