The View From the Veranda

Last week I gave a talk to some students at the School of Politics and International Studies (POLIS), at the University of Leeds. I’ve been an honorary Visiting Research Fellow with POLIS since April 2006, and it’s a rare occasion when I’m actually on-site. In fact, this was only the second time, the first being a talk I gave in late 2007. Then, I was still a serving staff officer with NATO, and my talk was about a book I’d just published. This time, I was speaking as an academic, recently resigned from NATO service, and offering students my observations on what it’s like to be a functionary in an International Organization. Despite working in some very interesting places – Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghansitan, as well as Western Europe – I couldn’t honestly claim to know much about them, and my own perceptions of those experiences are very much “the view from the veranda.”

That phrase is lifted from an article, written by Belgian academic Julian Eckl and published in International Political Sociology, entitled “Responsible Scholarship After Leaving the Veranda: Normative Issues Faced by Field Researchers – and Armchair Scientists.” Reading it was part of a broader effort to understand how the infrastructure of military interventions conflicts with the drive for ethnographic detail and context about states that host them. More importantly, I think it goes straight to the heart of knowledge claims. Debates on how we come to know the things we think we know – epistemological assumptions about the nature of research and understanding – are nothing new. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the problems are acute: headquarters life has been widely portrayed as  a disconnected bubble – an alien, hermetic imposition that squats amid the local environment while employing anthropologists and other social scientists to fill in the blanks on local culture.

Baghdad’s Green Zone, the barricaded home of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), has been a particular focus of such reporting. There, “imperial life in the emerald city” raises uncomfortable questions about just how much visiting advisors can learn and achieve – even those afforded a full year or more on the ground, and no matter how exotically qualified they might be. A number of journalists have been quick to point out the problem. New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins lived in Baghdad for almost four years, from the 2003 Invasion to the height of the insurgency in late 2006. In his memoir, The Forever War, he wrote “It was in the Green Zone that I would think the war was lost. I didn’t think about losing when I was outside – when I was in Iraq.” In The Assassin’s Gate, George Packer, the New Yorker staff writer, described the almost surreal disconnect that came with moving from one world to the next: “I went back and forth between the Green and Red Zones, between the CPA and Iraq, feeling almost dizzy at the transition, two separate realities existing on opposite sides of concrete and wire.”

What Packer and Filkins described in their respective books is almost identical to my own sense that the distance between observer and observed is infinitely elastic. In September 2001, the same month that Al Qaeda’s terrorists visited havoc on Manhattan, human rights activist and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Samantha Power published an article in The Atlantic on the Rwanda Genocide of 1994. It’s opening section was titled “People Sitting In Offices,” an allusion to the bureaucratic penchant of far-away politicians in Washington and New York to second-guess the reports and judgments of field-based observers. The irony is thick: after living and working at both ends of the food chain, I often found myself sitting behind the protective barrier of a desktop monitor, in Sarajevo, Pristina, Kabul, reading reports from the field and second-guessing the facts they purported to convey. I wasn’t far away; I was right around the corner. People sitting in offices, as it turns out, don’t need to be squirreled away in bunkers on the Potomac to do their damage.

And so it’s with no small amount of skepticism about what can be “known”, one way or the other, that I read work like Eckl’s. His premise is, I think, straightforward and uncontroversial. “Ethnographic  methods like participant observation differ significantly from other methods,” the article’s abstract states, “since they explicitly blur the boundary between theory and practice; this blurring requires researchers to carefully evaluate their conflicting responsibilities to the people studied, to the scientific community, and to themselves.” Sure.  “Many of the insights generated in ethnology are relevant for political scientists, too, especially for those political scientists who are prepared to ‘‘leave the veranda’’ and want to put ethnographic methods to use, but also for those who prefer to remain in the position of an ‘‘armchair’’ researcher.” Still fine.

It’s Eck’s more practical recommendations that feel, well… awkward. Scholarly “objectivity” and “neutrality” are laudable goals for researchers, and achieving even some semblance of them is the height of methodological rigor. But when politics enters the picture, things get more complicated. At issue then is whether scholars should proactively seek to limit access to their research findings rather than allow some potential future misuse of their work. Eckl thinks so. He also makes an interesting case for the idea that “the field” has, traditionally, represented very different things to anthropologists and to political scientists, and that the pressures of co-option either way must be resisted. He recommends reliance on documentary evidence as one way of avoiding the perils of “going native”; as a trained historian, I see that as a red herring of sorts. What Eckl doesn’t do, unfortunately, is reconcile the worlds of the anthropologist and the political scientist, of the field observer and the deskbound researcher. There is real and social distance that separates people sitting in offices from their grubby counterparts living and breathing outside the wire. We need to understand both, and to value both.

Eckl, J. (2008). “Responsible Scholarship After Leaving the Veranda: Normative Issues Faced by Field Researchers-and Armchair Scientists.” International Political Sociology, 2 (3), 185-203 DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-5687.2008.00044.x

Originally published at CTlab.

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