- Rwanda Since the 1994 Genocide
Rwanda Since the 1994 Genocide


Conducting research in a politically sensitive environment

By katie on February 10, 2013

Erin Jessee concluded her Skype talk by leaving us with a question to think about: what type of research is possible within Rwanda? She explained that, in her experience and the experiences of her fellow researchers, any type of research with a semblance of a human rights agenda or political sensitivity would be difficult to conduct (/be approved by the government). Jessee’s piece, “Conducting fieldwork in Rwanda,” acts as a “guide” (abstract) for individuals applying to conduct research in Rwanda and demonstrates the obstacles that one might encounter in the application process.

To begin, Jessee urges researchers to “familiarise themselves not only with best practices for ethics when working with human subjects and so-called vulnerable populations, but also with the political climate presently affecting Rwanda” (267). Here, Jessee points out how the tensioned environment in Rwanda adds an additional layer of complexity to working with human subjects. Implicitly, this shows a fundamental challenge of conducting research in any post-conflict situation – it is at the same time more appealing and more difficult to navigate and complete.

Jessee very directly states that “researchers whose projects touch upon sensitive issues such as the 1994 genocide or the evaluation of government development and reconciliation initiatives should expect to encounter difficulties” (271). The fact that Jessee wrote her article in 2012 — 16 years after the genocide — proves that the after affects of the genocide are still being felt in Rwanda, both in terms of national re-growth and personalized trauma. This, in turn, suggests that post-genocide reconciliation has not been overwhelmingly successful. While I acknowledge that the atrocities of the violence affect victims and perpetrators alike for a lifetime, perhaps the fact that it is still too sensitive to reflect on the genocide 16 years later means that many Rwandans have not effectively dealt with the violence.

Lastly, in speaking about the role of relationships in research, Jessee emphasizes the importance of the researcher assuming a positive and informed relationship with the local community. During her Skype talk, she described a general “Rwandan discomfort” with interviews and sensed “fear” and “paranoia” among locals. Reading Jessee’s piece, I couldn’t help but attribute the “jumping through hoops” nature of the application process to control and censorship of the government. Thus, I wonder how much of these paranoia feelings are caused by personal feelings of traumatization and how much is a result of government intimidation, the influence of the policy of national unity and reconciliation and perhaps, the lack of confrontation and closure many Rwandans received in gacaca.

1 Comment

  • Professor Thomson said:

    Great post, Katie, raising important points for further discussion while demonstrating a careful reading of Jessee’s argument (both in her article and lecture). Good!

    In response to your question about how individual trauma and government surveillance might frame the interview relationship with foreign researchers, what can we (as researchers) possibly do to improve our interviewing to minimize potential emotional and physical harm? This question will come up again and again as we work through the our IRB assignment

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