In this workshop, explicitly designed for doctoral candidates and postdocs, the Remoboko research team will present its work, and discuss the methodological difficulties associated with researching a sensitive topic from an ethnographic perspective. Finally, members of the team discuss the challenges of completing their PhDs within a research project.
“The innocent spy who came in from the cold: Fieldwork in the Sahel and self-reflexivity”, Vincent Favier
Vincent Favier did a presentation entitled: “The Innocent Spy Who Came in from the Cold: Fieldwork in the Sahel and Self-reflexivity”. Beside the nod to the climatic dimension due to frequent travel between Germany and Niger, this title refers to the conditions and experience of doing Fieldwork in the Sahel from 2019 to 2021. Inspired by Nigel Barley’s “The Innocent Anthropologist”, his presentation outlined the challenges faced by the researcher as a French and non-Muslim in a former French colony dominated by Islam. Balancing between linguistic and academic affinities and forms of political distrust, or even faith-based contempt, Vincent explained how doing fieldwork in such a social environment requires to be strategic, patient, and diplomatic. This particular setting also enables the researcher to reflect on himself, on the individuals and groups he looks at, but, more importantly, on the way these individuals perceive him and the significance of his research project. In an unstable regional context due to terror attacks, French military intervention, coups, accusations of state corruption, and disinformation, being perceived as a spy is anything but surprising, especially when one comes from abroad to ask questions. Self-reflexivity is thus a crucial dimension of research, in any context, not only to assess the epistemological biases but also to gradually break down clichés and engage in mutual understanding.
“Being a Muslim and a researcher: conducting research in a context of religious competition”, Bello Adamou
Bello Adamou presented the topic : Being a Muslim and a researcher: conducting research in a context of religious competition. He began his presentation by discussing his religious identity and his associative background within one of the Muslim Students Association of Niger, section of the Abdou Moumouni University of Niamey. Being Muslim, he participated several times in the activities of this association without however occupying a position of responsibility or integrating one of the commissions, during his cycles of Licence and Master. Thus, he mentioned the influence of his research on his religious identity because it requires him to analyze the different groups with the neutrality that scientific research requires. Then, he mentioned the different reactions of religious groups on his research. While Christians and Sufis accepted him without resistance, the Salafis perceived him as a spy on the payroll of the outside world. However, over time the latter group came to accept him as a researcher. Finally, Bello reported attempts by student religious groups to influence his research as they perceived him as a mouthpiece for their activities on campus through his scientific publications.
“A “Yovo” Historian in Benin and Togo: Conducting Fieldwork in Times of Pandemic and Fears of Jihadism Spreading”, Dr. Frederick Madore
Frédérick Madore did a presentation entitled “A ‘Yovo’ Historian in Benin and Togo: Conducting Fieldwork in Times of Pandemic and Fears of Jihadism Spreading”. In the first part of his talk, he offered some thoughts on conducting ethnographic fieldwork as a historian by training. Although a lot of textbooks exist on ethnographic fieldwork, the “field” often presents unexpected challenges, and the research must deal with many gray areas. He also addressed the issue of positionality and reflected on how being a foreigner or a “pseudo-insider” as well as making friends in the field impact the research findings. In the second section, Frédérick Madore gave an overview of the difficulties of doing research in insecure regions – “red zones” –, and how the security context in West Africa can influence the research on Salafism. For instance, many journalists and commentators, in assessing the threat that jihadists pose to countries bordering the Gulf of Guinea, such as Benin and Togo, have pointed out the spread of Salafism and Saudi Arabian-funded NGOs in the region. As a result, a growing number of Salafis are reluctant to talk to researchers and building trust can be a challenge. Finally, he highlighted the difficulties of conducting research in post-colonial archival centers in West Africa, which are often underfunded and disorganized. Historians of contemporary Africa must make do with less written material and usually must rely on oral sources.
“‘Who is your father? What family do you belong to?’ and ‘Patience, I’ll call you back!’: Researching Islam and Muslim Life in Contemporary Sahel”, Dr. Abdoulaye Sounaye
In a region such as the Sahel where Salafi-jihadism has become highly politicized, from below and above, from within and without, what are the challenges of conducting research on Islam and Muslim societies? How to deal with ethnographic discomfort and security concerns? What to draw from those constraints, but also opportunities to engage other dimensions of the work of academic knowledge production? What to learn from the actual contexts and the dynamics that shape it? How to make research and academic collaboration work? These questions were at the core of the public lecture (“Who is your father? What family do you belong to?” and “Patience, I’ll call you back!”: Researching Islam and Muslim Life in Contemporary Sahel) Abdoulaye Sounaye gave on June 13, 2022 at the Department of Anthropology of the University of Halle. Building on his two decade-long experience conducting fieldwork in the region, the lecture was an opportunity to open a conversation on the constraints and forms of social control that field researchers have to deal with, especially when “working at home.” The conditions of ethnographic research on Islam and Muslim societies in the Sahel were discussed, highlighting some of the challenges and the problematic nature of such methodological orientation today. The lecture also drew attention to both ethical and epistemological concerns, especially with regard to the sensitivity of “Islamic” topics, how researchers (are and) become subject to social control, navigate the “non-sense” of research, and become constitutive of the field.