Should student researchers go to conflict zones?

It’s nearing summer and tens of thousands of American and European students are preparing for a month or two abroad to write a senior essay or dissertation. I’ve gotten four or five emails about working in former war zones or with vulnerable populations just in the last week.

I hate writing the same return email every time, and I feel awful about dashing hopes and excitement, but I can’t help but point them to my advice on research in war zones.

Places like northern Uganda and Liberia and Sudan are crowded (literally) with undergraduates and master’s students chasing the same research questions, year after year. Much of this well-intentioned work ends up being very self-serving. I would guess less than one in a hundred ever generate findings worth putting into practice and feed those findings back to the community, government or NGOs.

This would be a mere annoyance for the people affected by war if it weren’t also potentially hazardous. No one should consider interviewing victims of rape and violence, former child soldiers, or other potentially traumatized populations without psychological expertise and the backing of an organization that can provide services for the neediest. People are hardy, and the risk of re-traumatizing someone small, but not zero.

What are some guidelines for doing good work?

  • Avoid the obvious “hotspots” that have become a destination for hundreds of students (hint: if a major celebrity or a hipster documentary crew has visited there in the last three years, it’s out)
  • Avoid vulnerable populations unless you have the right training and supervision, and have the backing of an organization that can help
  • Do your homework, and address a question that has not been addressed a dozen times before
  • To figure out what needs answering, work well in advance to identify organizations who have questions and would appreciate your help
  • It’s really hard to feed back your findings into practice, and takes a lot of work — almost as much work as generating the findings. At least go in with the conviction and time to do more than take away findings
  • Try to intern for an organization
  • Make a longer term commitment to a region than a summer

My full advice piece is here. Related comments on how to avoid being a development tourist here.

7 thoughts on “Should student researchers go to conflict zones?

  1. I think you mean “post conflict zones” because the two are very, very different.

    And really, your advice seems applicable to volunteers and others who want to go & work/study abroad, as well. I can’t imagine how difficult it is for individuals to constantly answer questions about their lives to researchers, journalists, NGOs, well intentioned people, etc and then really – not get any assistance or even advice in response. In fact, it would anger and frustrate me if I was in that position. Why should people have to tell their traumatic stories, for absolutely no reason? I think it’s very important for researchers to think about the benefit the participants are getting and whether there is any way to connect these people meaningfully to NGOs, social workers, or other assistance, as necessary.

  2. Hi Chris,

    Following Akhila’s post about the difference between war zones and post conflict zones I would be curious to have your feedback as a faculty member about whether universities would consider taking in and funding students who want to go to war zones for field work.

    Of course the question is of special interest to me: I am currently working (and have for a couple of years) in a war zone (well it ‘s not as dramatic as it sounds, i am not much of a hero) and am considering returning to school for a PhD with fieldwork in that particular area. Aside from the issue of one’s informants’ security (which I would hope would come first in the consideration of any researcher independently of the position of any university), would such a project be acceptable to an admission board and what would be their criteria for approval or refusal?

    Many thanks for any advice you may have!

  3. PhD research is usually different, insofar as it implies a long term professional commitment to the subject, a long term commitment to a place, a more original research question, and a final product that is in the public domain (as many dissertations are). Not all dissertations fulfill these criteria, but many do. Finally, if you can be relevant to the policy community or to the society because fo all the above (which is more likely) then that soothes most of the concerns.

  4. If students wish to pursue studies abroad in war zones, they need make sure that they have the right intentions in mind. While this type of research would be beneficial to their studies and education, if they are doing it for the wrong reasons or going about it in an incorrect way then it is a waste. While first hand experiences can change perspectives on issues, they can do more harm than good and cause problems for the people they are trying to help. Before traveling, students need to familiarize themselves with beliefs, customs and ideals of the country they are visiting.