The importance of identity – reflections from fieldwork in Hamra, Beirut

There can be no question that the background of the researcher affects what and whom s/he can access for research purposes’  argues local Refugee Hosts researcher, Bayan Itani as she reflects on her experiences of completing fieldwork in the local neighbourhood of Hamra, in the capital city of Lebanon, Beirut. Itani reflects on how her own ‘real and assumed’ identity, and that of her fellow researchers on the Refugee Hosts project, impacts both on their ability to access interviewees and on the responses they receive. Within her work, identifying and interviewing different groups of people who live and work in the area, Itani notices how the visible identity markers of nationality, religion or faith, influence the willingness to participate, and freedom of expression, in research participants. With this in mind, Itani argues that attentiveness to researcher identity in addition to, where possible, forming ‘hybrid teams’ is crucial to ensuring a wide range of research participants and responses and, importantly, to provide ‘insights into the politics of knowledge production.’

If you find this piece of interest please see our Reflections from the Field series or visit the recommended reading list at the end of this post.

This blog was posted on 21st June 2019

The importance of identity – reflections from fieldwork in Hamra, Beirut

By Bayan Itani, Researcher, Refugee Hosts.

When the term ‘research’ is used in popular discourse, the audience may expect to be presented with an objective study addressing a certain topic. However, objectivity is an elastic term that can be manipulated and misinterpreted in different ways. To a certain extent, a researcher can be ‘objective’ in so far as their study can present viewpoints and opinions that they may not themselves hold, or that may, indeed, be antithetical to their own beliefs. However, in the context of social science research, no matter how ‘objective’ a researcher may attempt to be, what roles do the origin and background of the researcher play?

In December 2017, I joined the Refugee Hosts project (an interdisciplinary project bringing together social science research with the arts and humanities) as a Local Researcher in Hamra neighbourhood, at the center of Lebanon’s capital, Beirut. I was born and raised in Hamra, and people with my surname are easily identified in Lebanon as Sunni Muslims from Beirut. Coming from a religious family, I have been wearing a veil since my school years.

As part of the research in Hamra, I teamed up with a fellow researcher from Germany, Leonie Harsch, who is easily identifiable as a foreigner and non-Muslim. Together, we completed fieldwork in the area and interviewed diverse people who live and work in Hamra, members of the ‘host’ and ‘refugee’ communities alike, to collect primary data for the project.

My colleague and I worked together on contacting key figures and organizations that fitted our research criteria. At some point in process, my colleague contacted a well-known local Islamic organization for an interview, and after facing difficulties when following up with the group, she received a phone call with a negative reply. A few days later, we decided to reach out to this same organization again, so I emailed them and in no time we received a positive reply and were able to readily arrange a very productive interview with their General Manager.

Many people have interesting information, perceptions and opinions to share with social science researchers, but the question is: with whom are these people willing to share their information and views?

This process also worked the other way: in some contexts, the potential interviewees we contacted mentioned that they would not accept the presence of a Muslim interviewer. With physical attributes such as a headscarf –aside from my family name – it was not possible for me to take part in these interviews.

There can be no question that the background of the researcher affects what and whom s/he can access for research purposes. This is why the hybridity of the research team is always an asset: in our case, our broader research team in Hamra included not only Lebanese and German researchers, but also a Palestinian researcher and a Syrian researcher. Together, our team was composed of researchers with a range of real and assumed religious identities and beliefs, national identities and legal statuses. Together, we were able to identify and interview diverse groups of interviews, and to navigate diverse encounters throughout the research process in Hamra.

One last aspect in this regard is that the researcher’s background affects the answers they receive. In the context of this research, many Syrian interviewees that I met apologized before mentioning negative feedback about Lebanese nationals, whether based on their own personal experiences of being treated disrespectfully, or on stories they may have heard from their own community. On the other hand, some potential Lebanese interviewees expressed a willingness to participate in the research as long as they could criticize Syrians freely.

In interviews with Muslim figures, where religious motives were listed as reasons to support refugees, the interviewees equally noted that Christianity and other religions also call for such support. The question that we raise here is: does the presence of a non-Muslim interviewer contribute to such feedback? If this interview had been conducted only by a Muslim researcher, would we still hear such answers?

The importance of identity, and of informal ways of ‘knowing’ the identity of the researcher, arose in a number of research encounters. Oral history and word of mouth are commonly used to trace other peoples’ ancestry in the areas where we have been conducting research; in many instances, the more able a potential interviewee was to track my ancestry – by virtue of my surname in particular -, the more comfortable they would be when answering our questions. In one of the interviews that my German colleague had scheduled, the interviewee turned out to be a third cousin of mine, whom I had never met before.

Whether viewed as an investment, manipulation of capital, or just an advantage, in research across diverse disciplines, including in the social sciences, who the researcher is can give you access to many spaces and people, whilst also limiting you from accessing others. The research purpose is a constant, but important variables include the identities of the research team members, and how these identities are perceived and evaluated by prospective and actual interviewees, in addition to all other variables, such as the identity and beliefs of these interviewees, the location of the research, and manifold other circumstances.

To conclude, the researcher’s attentiveness to how their own identity may affect the study is an indispensable factor to consider throughout the research process. This also highlights how crucial it is to form hybrid teams, whenever suitable, in specific studies, particularly ones dealing with sensitive and/or cross-border topics. This would facilitate reaching out to a broader range of interviewees, as well as providing important insights into the politics of knowledge production.

**

If you find this piece of interest please see our Reflections from the Field series and the recommended reading list below:

Carpi, E. (2018) Humanitarianism and Postcoloniality: A Look at Academic Texts

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Reflections from the Field: Introduction to the Series

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018)  An update: ‘data collection and analysis’

Greatrick, A. and Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2017) ‘The Roles of Performance and Creative Writing in Refugee-Related Research’

Harsch, L. (2018) ‘Historical Photos of Hamra, Beirut’

Qasmiyeh, Y. and Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. 2019 The Third Voice and Third Eye in our Photo-Poetic Reflections

Featured image: Reflecting on life in Beirut (c) L. Harsch, April 2018.

 

 

 

 

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