This blog series is based on research conducted by Drs. Bridget Conley-Zilkic and Dyan Mazurana.
The “evidence-based” turn in social science research about conflict has fundamentally changed knowledge production and dissemination: fields predicated on theorization, case studies and anecdotal materials have shifted towards production of primary source information in the form of assessments, surveys, and large-scale individual and group interview projects providing a landscape of data with which to draw conclusions, inform insights, and ideally improve outcomes. The results to date from this approach offer impressive new insights into the patterns of violence, civilian vulnerabilities, and improving responses.
The shift was led in many ways by international organizations and state-based entities that work in or are concerned with conflicts and sought to better describe, convey and provide services to people impacted by violent social disruptions. As is evidenced in our review of primary source data collections in four thematic areas related to conflict—gender-based violence, child soldiers, pastoralists and perpetrators—far more evidence-based research exists in areas where a large organization (governments or intergovernmental such as the United Nations) has sponsored research. However, a consequence of this organizational leadership on evidence based social science research on conflict was an emphasis on methodology rather than epistemology: in short, discourse on the multiple ways of constructing surveys, interviews and assessments flourished, while reflection on the core data at the heart of this knowledge production stagnated. Such reflection was not the primary purpose for the organizations that sponsored the research efforts.
One result of this evolution of research practices is that the actual raw data collected has in many cases been treated as a secret ingredient on the way towards the final product: the published report that synthesizes and highlights key take-aways. While this is an understandable development, the interviews and transcripts that are the source of coded data—and which potentially offer a wealth of additional insights—are thereby restricted to a severely limited audience, often only the principal investigator. Consequences include: the isolation of studies from each other because of core data incompatibilities; researchers often returning to the same populations to ask very similar questions, at worst, exposing them to new trauma, but also often gathering evidence from the same subset of the total affected population; and missed opportunities to reflect on the process of evidence gathering, which is necessary for fields concerned with conflict to continue to deepen their intellectual and practical applications.
One crucial contributing factor to the lack of reflection on practices of knowledge production is the complete absence of institutional models for archiving raw data collected by social science research, particularly transcribed interview data. In short, currently, there are no archives for primary source data collections on issues related to conflict, a fact that inhibits the field’s ability for self-reflection, training new generations of researchers, and for comparing results across studies. Arguably, only universities have the requisite concern about how knowledge is produced in addition to what knowledge is produced to provide an appropriate home for such an archive.
The field is ripe for a university to assume a leadership role by establishing an archive that helps to cultivate practices, reflection, training and access to the raw data of social science research on conflict.
In two blog essays to follow, we address what different models for human rights archives already exist and what the challenges and benefits would be for a university that might consider hosting such an endeavor.