“Renegade research”: hierarchies of knowledge production in Central Asia

For those researching the global south, fieldwork needs to be reimagined as a collaborative process which can help overturn structures of oppression.

Mohira Suyarkulova
10 December 2018


Call to prayer in Karategin, Tajikistan. Photo CC BY-NC 2.0: Rohan Shenhav / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

In the past couple of years a lively discussion has been taking place on the ethics and safety of conducting research in authoritarian states, including in Central Asia. Some of these exchanges were published on the pages of openDemocracy and EurasiaNet: earlier this year, a piece on Tajikistan by John Heathershaw and Edward Schatz was followed by responses from Malika Bahovadinova and Karolina Kluczewska. This discussion is illustrative of the stakes involved.

In their article, John Heathershaw and Edward Schatz highlighted deteriorating academic freedom in Tajikistan. First, they considered and then dismissed as unacceptable a full boycott or “blacklist” of Tajik academic institutions. Instead, they called for “critical engagement and solidarity” with Tajik scholars. Malika Bahovadinova and Karolina Kluczewska took issue with Heathershaw and Schatz’s allegation that any research conducted in collaboration with Tajik institutions would be academically and ethically suspect, citing their own experiences of doing fieldwork in the country. They added that calls for boycotts and blacklists are counterproductive, disingenuous and conceal the contradictions of how research is conducted in the region.

In their response, Heathershaw and Schatz rejoined that

The debate on these questions is a hard one and must continue. But it must begin from a recognition that we as an academic community are all at risk from authoritarian regimes like Tajikistan which host our research.

Risks, however, are not equally distributed among researchers. The political economy of knowledge production shifts risks to some researchers while privileging others. The question then remains: How can research be conducted critically, ethically and in solidarity with local scholars?

This year, critical development scholar Japhy Wilson published an article entitled “Sabotage of Development: Subverting the Censorship of Renegade Research” in the Journal of Extreme Anthropology. The article was originally meant to become a chapter in his book on renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs, but, according to the article itself, was removed by the publishing house out of fear of legal action. In the article, Wilson spells out seven principles of what he defines as “renegade research”, which may be used to undertake fieldwork under difficult circumstances in order to uncover the “things that power does not want you to know”.

This “renegade” agenda is certainly relevant to the ongoing discussion on research in Central Asia, especially in terms of engaging in critical research while building international scholarly solidarity. My fear, however, is that turning it into a principle does little to subvert the injustices inherent in the hierarchies of knowledge production between the “West” and the “Rest”.

Uncovering the “hidden truth” in Uganda and elsewhere

Wilson’s article is fascinating. It details the author’s fieldwork experience in Uganda, where he researched Jeffrey Sachs’s Millennium Villages Project (MVP), an ambitious development project financed by some of the wealthiest and most powerful institutions and corporations in the world. Wilson writes that contrary to “MVP’s extravagant claims of success”, his research uncovered mismanagement and corruption. He also describes his own experience of brief detention and pursuit by the Ugandan secret police on suspicion of “sabotage of development”, which were followed by threats of litigation made by Sachs’s foundation against him.

Apart from publishing censored material, the article criticises the institutionalised control over the conduct of research, often framed as “ethical research” protocols and institutional review boards’ approval requirements. Wilson argues that these institutions “function to shield power from scrutiny”, making critical and vigorous investigations impossible. Not only does the author discuss the “state-capital-academia” nexus based on his experiences in the field, but also articulates the principles of “renegade research”, which are as follows:

  1. Do not seek ethical approval from your university
  2. Do not apply for a research visa from the host government
  3. Do not ask for clearance from the institution being studied
  4. Do not request informed consent from research participants
  5. Tell lies whenever convenient
  6. Pay bribes whenever necessary
  7. Steal information whenever possible.

Is there anything wrong with “renegade research”?

These principles are deeply problematic, not simply because they go against the established norms of ethical conduct in conducting research, but because the author fails to acknowledge his own privilege and situatedness in the deeply unequal global political economy of knowledge production. The article also reads like a kind of heroic self-narrative that celebrates a (white, Western, male) scholar-adventurer, who parachutes into a country using the privileges of his passport and nationality, as well as his ability to pay bribes if needed and get out without any real consequences for his safety, career and reputation.

Meanwhile, we are not given any clue as to what happens to the author’s local research assistant – whose position and nationality obviously make him vulnerable to repercussions by the authorities – when Wilson is forced to flee the country. One is reminded of the fate of researcher Alexander Sodiqov, who was detained in Tajikistan in 2014 while carrying out research, and then accused of espionage and high treason by the authorities. Sodiqov’s British counterpart – who was also the lead of the research project that employed him – was able to leave the country. Following an international campaign and continued pressure on the Tajik authorities, Sodiqov was eventually released after four months of detention, but his case put the vulnerability of local researchers into stark relief.

Local academics work on the global periphery of knowledge production, are underfunded, and often have to accept exploitative working conditions. Central Asian scholars who are regularly recruited as data collectors for foreign-funded projects are alienated from their labour on many levels: they are excluded from the decision-making process concerning the formulation of the research question(s) and research design, as well as their work conditions and the final product.

Local academics work on the global periphery of knowledge production, are underfunded, and often have to accept exploitative working conditions

The risks of undertaking research on sensitive topics are also shifted onto local researchers, who bear the brunt of potential state persecution. At times, they even face the hostility of respondents with whom they have little opportunity to build a rapport given the usually short research timelines, as well as their lack of control over working conditions (transportation, accommodation and the duration of stay in the field site). During collaborations between foreign and local scholars, the intellectual division of labour often assumes that only the (usually Western) former are capable of analysis and theorising, while the latter are relegated to the task of data collection, as Malika Bahovadinova argues in her article on researching Tajikistan.

Moreover, Wilson does not address the possible resistance of local activists against the MVP in Uganda, as his self-centered narrative strips local actors of agency. The goal of the author does not seem to build an equal partnership and alliance with local progressive forces in a kind of activist-scholar show of solidarity. Instead, the study reproduces the all too common power dynamics and inequality in living and work conditions between foreign “researchers” and native “assistants”. In this sense, Wilson is very much rooted in the global hierarchies of knowledge production, which is often exploitative and extractive in that it sees the sites of research as a place characterised by a problem, whose solution can be found only by outsiders.

However, we should challenge the construction of “authoritarianism” as exclusively located in countries outside North America and Western Europe. Rather than a parochial phenomenon, authoritarian tendencies are transnational, as the rise of the political right across the world indicates. Still, the fact that it is almost inconceivable to imagine a Central Asian scholar studying forms of authoritarianism in Great Britain or the United States is a testament to the asymmetry in the global infrastructure of knowledge production. Such studies are non-existent – or can only be satirical, as in this wonderful piece by Nick Megoran – precisely because of the existing power-knowledge structures.

Finally, the principles of “renegade research” prioritise the researcher’s interests above all other considerations. There seems to be a sense of entitlement on the part of the researcher to have access to the field in order to know “the truth”. While it is laudable to pursue the truth concealed by power, one ought to question their own motivations: why do you need to know? Who is this scholarship for? Whose needs does it serve? In the case of Central Asia, all too often scholarship serves outside audiences, with most of the findings published in a foreign language in obscure academic journals hidden behind a paywall, thus making them virtually inaccessible to the region’s citizens.

If the purpose of “renegade research” is to overturn the structures of oppression and use academia to affect social change, then we should consider fieldwork as an essential part of this emancipatory agenda. Liberation cannot just be what happens after the findings of a study are published, but rather something built into the design and process of undertaking the research itself.

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