Can Collaborative Research Projects Reverse the Dominance of Externally Imposed Narratives on Violence and Conflict?
Since the start of the Congo wars in 1996, different narratives have tried to make sense of the roots, nature, and complexities of violence and conflict. Public and academic debate first concentrated on the military involvement of neighbouring countries. After the beginning of the second Congo War, in 1998, control over natural resources (mostly minerals) was increasingly considered the crucial driver of violence. As was argued, warring factions’ ambitions and strategies were guided by economic incentives. The focus on resources has gradually been accompanied by international coverage of the high levels of sexual violence, leading to the image of Congo as the “rape capital of the world”.
However simplistic or reductionist such narratives often might be, they have had a major influence on international public opinion and international policy responses to Congo’s crisis, despite the existence of a growing and rich academic literature on the multilayered causes and consequences of the Congo wars. While reductionist narratives have contributed little to a better understanding of the conflict’s scope and protracted character, the fact that most are authored by outside observers is far more problematic. Whether they’re the output of sensationalist journalists or smartly developed campaigns by international NGOs, they hardly ever give a voice to Congolese perspectives or readings. Moreover, they infringe on Congolese observers’ own thought processes/freedom to think, as they’re forced to first reproduce existing narratives if their own are to have any chance of being heard. But isn’t this also the case for academically produced knowledge? Isn’t the bulk of analysis also being written outside of the Congo and isn’t this literature imposing its own ways of thinking and framing on those involved in the process of data collection and analysis? To what extent can collaborative research projects build new perspectives and avoid the simple reproduction of dominant epistemologies and repertoires?
Having been involved for more than a decade now in such collaborative projects, I have to acknowledge that in most cases, different layers of collaboration exist that implicitly confirm underlying logics of knowledge production. Despite today’s genuine efforts to embark on more participatory approaches, research agendas and guiding conceptual frameworks are usually still developed by a core group of researchers (in most cases based in the North) and taken as a given by the rest of the research team (in most cases but not exclusively based in the South). This isn’t per se because there’s no space for discussion or debate, but because one’s own positionality often refrains one from doing so. As a consequence, these agendas and frameworks often are just taken for granted. Furthermore, the backgrounds, ways of thinking, registers, and dominant epistemologies that lead to these agendas and frameworks are continually being reproduced and guided by the dynamics of power that define academia. This explains why, even in collaborative projects, members of the core research team continue to decide what should be on the research agenda and researchers and research assistants based in the South tend to position themselves as mere facilitators and data collectors, thus reducing their own navigational space in the field of knowledge production. This often leads to frustration on both sides. For those in the core group, it can be challenging to deal with what they see as a lack of activism and ownership in the research process by researchers and assistants based in the South. For those based in the South, lack of financial autonomy and the implicit or explicit dominant position of those in the North can be equally disturbing.
These issues have gained increased visibility in the debates on the politics of research exploitation and decolonisation of knowledge production. What receives limited attention in these otherwise rich discussions is how these issues contribute to a specific framing of what we study. What is considered “the field” in eastern Congo, for instance, is largely based on externally produced and imposed perspectives, approaches, paradigms, concepts, and theories. It’s also the result of a specific way of “doing research”: specific epistemologies, research values, and practices. These explain why local views hardly ever find their way into larger discussions and debates. How researchers in the South look at their own world is largely defined by dominant perspectives produced elsewhere, even if they don’t correspond to their own views. These perspectives, for reasons based either on strategy, opportunity, or existing power relations, are often just accepted. As a consequence, in some cases there’s an implicit distancing from the research activities in which they take part. These dynamics, in the end, engender mind-narrowing effects on how we look at realities in places we are trying to understand. Existing research collaborations often equally prevent us from making real progress in understanding, and redefining our views of, existing realities.
Making more visible all those who contribute to the research cycle, providing them with decent remuneration, and implementing solid security policies – however important – won’t reverse the dominance of external frameworks of thinking. To arrive at genuine co-production of knowledge, tackling the power dynamics that drive research and giving a voice to those who have been silenced are not enough. Changing existing logics forces us to rethink our own position as scholars. To what extent are researchers in the North ready to allow collaborators in the South to challenge their frameworks and views? In addition to creating space for self-critique, how can we create a more proactive role and induce a sense of ownership in researchers based in the South? Real collaboration isn’t only about doing things together at each stage, including project design and proposal writing; it implies questioning the reference frameworks and practices we rely on. Indeed, turning the production of knowledge into a real shared enterprise can only be successful when it includes new people (or the same people in new ways), incorporates new ideas and perspectives, and builds a true dialogue between equitably approached perspectives. It’s about creating and claiming space for and by these new voices.
Koen Vlassenroot is a Professor and Head of Department of Conflict and Development Studies at Ghent University