Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Why study the ‘bad guys’?

To understand violence we must speak to those who commit violence. Conducting research in conflict zones is challenging, and to do it well we must challenge the dictums found in methods handbooks.

Anna Hedlund
9 May 2016

M23 rebel fighters walk through the streets of Kiwanja 80km (50 miles) north of Goma, Congo in August 2012. Jerome Delay/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

More and more researchers are increasingly involved in research projects studying the ‘bad guys’ and people who perpetuate violence and social injustice. Yet the methodological and ethical challenges in such research are rarely discussed. Why should we study ‘bad guys’ and what challenges are included?

Researchers have historically avoided getting up close and personal with ‘bad guys’ such as warlords or criminals. This aversion is not particularly surprising. Fieldwork in difficult and dangerous locations is challenging from both methodological and ethical perspectives. Yet face-to-face research with ‘bad guys’ is important if we want to understand the root causes of major social and political problems. In order to understand how injustice is produced and experienced by individuals, we have to take seriously the perpetrators of violence from a methodological standpoint.

In this piece I draw on my experiences researching armed groups and patterns of violence in the eastern Congo (DRC) in order to think through the ethical and methodological limitations and difficulties associated with fieldwork focusing on perpetrators of violence. While eastern Congo has its own idiosyncrasies and distinctive characteristics, insights from this case also have broader applications for thinking about how we might go about studying ‘traffickers’, ‘enslavers’ and others who perpetuate injustice.

Research challenges

Conflict areas are defined by violence and atrocity, unpredictability, political instability, and widespread poverty and corruption. This generates pervasive fear, insecurity and low levels of trust amongst inhabitants, along with the trauma and suffering associated with the loss of family members, livelihoods and homes. Since conflict areas are also difficult for outsiders to access, there tends to be a shortage of reliable information, and what limited information is available can often be simplistic and sensationalist. Researchers entering such spaces face any number of challenges, especially when the research involves focusing upon groups and individuals who have already committed violence or war crimes. Most obviously, it may be difficult to gain access to field sites, since many perpetrators and armed groups are suspicious and reluctant to speak to ‘outsiders’, especially when it comes to questions about past atrocities.

There are also challenges regarding the ‘knowledge’ you can produce from this kind of research. For example, how can we trust analysis and interpretation that may be ‘tainted’ by crisis and insecurity? Are researchers even coping with the existential crises that may affect their theory building? What of the dangers of ‘humanising the inhumane’ or the analytical problems that may arise if researchers begin to empathise with perpetrators and thereby lose critical detachment? There is also the further danger that researchers can end up empowering violent perpetrators by giving them attention, or reproducing their ideologies and perspectives by writing about them. All of these ethical and methodological factors need to be taken into account as part of efforts to better understand how violence is motivated, produced and acted out.

Research ethics are an integral part of any study involving human beings. Most academic ethical guidelines state that researchers must protect the names and identities of informants, ensure confidentiality, avoid harm or misuse of information, and protect the safety, dignity, and the privacy of informants. While these guidelines are motivated by good intentions, many ethics codes simply don’t stack up to the reality of research in conflict zones.


Families flee fighting between M23 rebels and the Congolese government near Goma in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2012. Oxfam/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)

For example, my research on one rebel group operating in eastern Congo, whose members are accused of numerous war crimes, comprised much sensitive data on political opinions, controversies surrounding genocide, ethnicity, political affiliations, names of enemy groups, or narratives given by individuals who have participated in brutal violence. I tried my best to make sure that I did not reveal the identity of informants. I changed names and used coded language when I dealt with data that included names of places or groups.

But was this enough? Some of my younger informants may not even have been fully aware of how the information they gave me could compromise their security, and so may have revealed secret information that could have been used against them had it ended up in the wrong hands. What to do with these data? Similarly, what to do with data that contain the identity of informants guilty of war crimes? Why protect them? How to write objectively about the seemingly never-ending conflict they are involved in? How to deal with neutrality in a context where neutrality does not exist?

Few method books will provide answers to the questions outlined above. In my research I had to be flexible in terms of ethics and methodology. For example, I found that I had to take responsibility over my informant’s security by not including certain data in publications and by making sure that the data were safely stored. I also found that it was more important to highlight my informant’s views and standpoints while clearly pointing out that I do not necessarily share the same view as a researcher.

In other cases I have made choices to include personal reflections into the ethnography in order to problematise positionality, objectivity, and neutrality. Even if I strongly disagree with my informants’ political views and argue that the violence they have committed can never be justified, I nevertheless believe that, as researchers, our goal is not to judge people’s behaviours but to understand their acts as social practice.


Research is never a neutral exercise. This is perhaps even truer when conducting fieldwork in conflict areas and among people who are actively pursuing violence. Regardless of ethical and moral challenges, however, I believe that it is essential to engage with individuals who carry out violence or perpetuate social injustice in order to understand the fuller picture of violence and conflict.

Against the background described above, why should we study perpetrators? Despite many challenges inherent in research in difficult settings I believe it is important to engage with those actors who carry out violence. If social scientists choose not to engage with hostile or war-making individuals, we will never be able to understand the world-views of the actors or the root causes of the conflict, or be able to construct a coherent understanding of why people carry out violence.

In order to understand the lifeworlds, experiences, and ideologies that motivate violence we have to talk to and engage with those who carry out violence. As researchers we should be more flexible in our attitudes towards methods and ethics then strict rules and guidelines often permit. Without challenging methodologies we can never advance theoretically on the structural roots of conflict and domination, and in doing so truly understand conditions and circumstances under which people carry out violence.

Even though research in conflict areas is challenging, and often full of contradictions, in most instances I found that informants made choices to talk to me and about what to say, and that they were the best assessors of the risk of interacting with a foreign researcher. Furthermore, giving voice to marginalised populations, including individuals who are caught up in conflicts as victims or perpetrators, or as enslavers or traffickers, is a core anthropological virtue. The task is to balance this requirement with the obvious ethical and methodological challenges at stake.

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