9: Research challenges in authoritarian global South

Session 2

Convenor: Minna Hakkarainen (minna.hakkarainen@helsinki.fi)

This working group discusses specific challenges faced by researchers conducting research in authoritarian settings. The working group is organized as a roundtable discussion with four discussants and the audience, who will discuss different perspectives and challenges in conducting research in authoritarian contexts. The questions we hope to delve into in this roundtable discussion concern safety of the researchers and the informants, different types of control faced during the fieldwork, theoretical challenges arising from application of social theories rooted in Western democracies to authoritarian societies, amongst many other questions.


Virpi Salojärvi, PhD, Postdoctoral researcher, Media and Communication Studies, University of Helsinki Conducting a politically volatile research in Chávez’s Venezuela

Conducting a research in a conflict situation under a watchful eye of a government brings challenges of protecting informants, positioning oneself as a balanced researcher and accessing the needed information on government and political opponent’s side, which require social skills, ability to make circumspect decisions and also trial and error.

Venezuela during President Chavez’s administration was officially democracy but the political conflict between the opposition and the government penetrated the whole society and divided even families. In this delicate situation, the researcher needs cultural knowledge and to reflect one’s own experiences on a daily bases if she aims to succeed in the ongoing work. In this, reliable informants representing different points of view have a great importance, since this enables testing different theories and strategies in a safe environment. Thus, being a so-called outsider (coming from Finland) helps in the research. Moreover, general and tacit understanding of different levels of the governmental administration and knowledge of political culture needs to be considered in empirical work and theories used.

The personal research experience is gained during several field trips in Venezuela during 2007 and 2011-2014, and includes dozens of interviews of different parties and levels of the conflict. The conducted researches focus on the role of media in the political conflict as the media, including private and public media, were politically active participants in the development of the situation.

Ruvimbo Natalie Mavhiki, PhD Candidate, Asian Studies, University of Helsinki “Political research in authoritarian Zimbabwe”

Political research in strict authoritarian settings can be both risky to the researcher and his or her respondents. Information is a key resource for oppressive regimes and both its ‘seeker’ and ‘provider’ can be at great risk during field studies. State machinery in the form of secret agents police and soldiers are often used to look out and take in non-abiding individuals. The state often enforces laws to ensure this and foreign researchers are sometimes not aware or ignorant of the local laws governing their conduct. Reflecting on experiences on political investigations in Zimbabwe, this paper is an attempt to highlight important steps to follow as well as points to consider when conducting field research in strict authoritarian states focusing on both the researcher and the respondent. It addresses issues around bridging theoretical and practical research, choosing the right contacts, logistics, interview settings, what to and not to carry, what to say and avoid, questions the researcher should ask him / herself, recording and securing information, identification of possible challengers, identification of exit points and legal considerations.

Karin Dean, Associate Professor, South-East Asian Studies, Tallinn University Negotiating Regimes of Legitimacy in Myanmar/Burma

Research on the Kachin political geography since 2000 has meant negotiating fiercely contested spaces in the field between contending regimes of control, legitimacy and security – that of the state and that of an ethnic based armed organization. In Myanmar’s borderlands the Kachin Independence Organization is one of the many non-state armed groups that militarily maintain control over their sovereign spaces and borders, demanding autonomy for their respective ethnic states. While negotiating the competing sovereign domains in the lived spaces can be done with knowledge of the socio-political contexts and local help, the messiness caused by the normalization of modern Western nation-state, in theory and practice, creates both opportunities and challenges for writing up and publishing research.

Taru Salmenkari, Associate professor, Chinese Studies, Tallinn University “Being authoritarian and non-European: (Un)suitability of theoretical
tools for research”

One difficulty for researching authoritarian countries comes from finding suitable tools for analysis. The standard theoretical tools in social sciences are largely developed for analyzing certain Western countries which are democracies. Therefore, their use doubly disadvantages attempts to understand authoritarian countries which are both culturally and institutionally different. How to understand ideas and developments in an authoritarian country but simultaneously maintain a critical edge?