Research is a profession that exposes researchers to numerous risks, either because of the complexity of the field or the sensitivity of the research topic. To avoid these risks and gain access to the field, researchers may sometimes rely on unconventional strategies. One of these strategies entails pretending to be someone else. But is the idea of “hiding under your hat” ethically acceptable? And how to deal with the mental weight of such a strategy?
For more than a decade, eastern DRC has gone through a period of extreme insecurity. The ongoing dynamics attract researchers’ interest, at both international and national levels. Researchers undertake research to understand the underlying causes of conflict, the dynamics and their impacts on the lives of local communities. When entering the field, however, researchers face several problems. In certain circumstances, they may choose to disguise themselves in order to be able to do their research. Let’s look at some situations in which researchers have opted for this strategy.
First of all, it’s often unclear for local people what a researcher is coming to “research”. People aren’t necessarily familiar with the research profession and the ethical principles that research entails. When facing a person who introduces himself as a researcher, without explanations or reference points of what this means, local people may refuse to communicate. They may, for example, mistake the researcher for an intelligence officer who has come to gather information or make inquiries about sensitive issues in the region, or about individuals or the community. In this case, the researcher may be seen as a threat. If, however, the researcher introduces him or herself as a student, local perceptions may change. The status of student falls within local actors’ reference frame and is easier for local communities to understand.
Nevertheless, researchers shouldn’t underestimate the possible negative impacts of using a strategy of disguise. In some cases, hiding one’s researcher status behind a student disguise can entail a lot of risk. This happened to a group of Congolese researches who – in the framework of a research project on traditional leaders and property – presented themselves as students from a Congolese university. In the midst of the focus group discussion, the village leader interrupted them by exclaiming, “These people are not students, and even less from ISDR/Bukavu! What they want to learn from us has nothing to do with development. I was waiting for them to tell us how we should arrange our fish ponds, or our fields for different crops. But it’s the other way around. They want to understand our customs and property arrangements! These people are spies.” To defend themselves, the researchers explained the importance of their research topic with regards to the overall objective of regional development. It was not an easy task and it took them hours. Imagine what could have been their fate if they wouldn’t have been able to convince their audience, and if locals had found out that they weren’t students but researchers engaged in a research project. To researchers, a student’s research may – in essence – seem like the same thing, but that is not necessarily the case for the research participants.
There are also cases where researchers may choose to disguise themselves as someone other than a student. In certain contexts, the key actors they aim to interact with are at the core of the problem that the research is attempting to understand. Consequently, such research can be perceived by those very actors as a threat to their interests. To protect those interests, they may develop strategies to obstruct the research. And in extreme cases – for example, if the research is about armed groups and the researcher is suspected of spying for the enemy camp – they may even think about eliminating the researcher so that sensitive data don’t leave the local area.
In such contexts, researchers may opt for other disguises. They may, for instance, pretend to be a customer, salesperson, visitor to the area, or potential investor. Take the example of a researcher who was involved in researching roadblock dynamics. When he tried to approach the roadblock agents as a researcher, they refused to give him any information. They even took him for a spy. When afterwards he disguised himself as a visitor, this allowed him to circulate in the field and observe the attitudes and behaviour of the agents at the roadblock. The approach enabled the researcher to gather a lot of data. But when the agents recognised him, they obliged him to prove that he hadn’t recorded anything on his device. If this roadblock had been controlled by armed groups, the researcher’s fate could have been very uncertain.
A final strategy of disguise may be one in which researchers present themselves as researchers but remain very superficial on the type of information in which they are interested. For example, a colleague introduced herself in the field as a researcher interested in peasants’ living conditions. Because it was taboo at that time to question authorities’ decisions, she addressed topics that were seemingly less sensitive but that touched upon power relations between authorities and peasants. Interestingly, the peasants themselves often insisted that the aspect of power would be included in her study. But if the researcher had explained right from the start that she was interested in this dimension, she could have been considered a government spy by the peasants, and authorities wouldn’t have authorised her to conduct her research.
Overall, conducting research in disguise may enable researchers to gather data to which they would otherwise never have gained access. Moreover, using a disguise may protect researchers from possible trouble in a context in which the research profession isn’t part of participants’ frame of reference. It may also enable researchers to protect themselves against possible threats by powerful actors in the field. However, at the same time, the strategy carries great risks. If the disguise is revealed, how should researchers explain themselves? What are the implications of gathering data in disguise from an ethical standpoint? Do researchers have the right to keep data gathered while undercover? Don’t we have the moral obligation to be transparent in every respect with our research participants? But how then do we manage the risks?
In any case, it’s clear that each research project that possibly entails strategies of disguise needs a space for discussion in which critical questions can be asked. Donors have to be aware of the complexities that researchers face in the field, and of required practical and security arrangements. Researchers need guidance in the reflection process concerning the appropriateness of disguise strategies, and their concerns have to be taken seriously. It shouldn’t be left to individual researchers to figure things out while being alone in the field; considering disguise strategies should be part of a collective thought process around research methods and ethical implications. Only through such collective in-depth reflection and self-examination can we ask ourselves what rights we have as researchers when interacting within a complicated field, and think about how we can limit the risks of research for participants as well as for ourselves.
Précieux Thamani Mwaka is a researcher with Land Rush at the Institut Supérieur de Développement Rural (ISDR-Bukavu)
Stanislas Bisimwa Baganda is a researcher in the Groupe d’Etude sur le Conflit et la Sécurité Humaine (GEC-SH). He is also a consultant in project management.
An Ansoms is Professor at the Université Catholique de Louvan-la-Neuve