Conducting research in active conflict zones presents specific challenges to social science researchers. Insecurity and uncertainty in the context of data collection require them to be flexible but transparent in their methodological choices. This chapter specifies some challenges we have faced working in Mali between 2012 and 2017, a context characterized by the presence of violent extremists, ongoing communal conflict and limited state capacity. Since the outbreak of the 2012 crisis, we have conducted collaborative and individual research projects on issues related to governance, armed actors and youth. Like many Sahel countries, Mali faces immense challenges in terms of political and security governance. Since 2012, Mali has been hit by unprecedented crises ranging from a secessionist rebellion to violent inter-communal conflict. The rise of violent extremism and the inability of the state to cope with the problems of insecurity have led to mass popular frustrations. Despite the international community's commitment, non-state armed groups are gaining ground and offer alternatives in terms of governance, security and justice, which respond to gaps left by the state since independence. This crisis began in the north of the country, but the turmoil has spilled over to the centre and now envelops more than two thirds of Mali's geographic territory. This article is informed by our experiences of adapting our research to this challenging research environment. It describes our attempts to adapt methods and techniques in this context and stresses that these challenges have both pragmatic and theoretical implications.
We build on previous reflections on research in conflict zones (Ayimpam and Bouju, 2015; Bouju, 2015; Boumaza and Campana, 2007; Lamarche, 2015; Wood, 2006), but try to focus our discussion on the specific challenges relevant to the Sahel: operating in environments characterized by, first, a multitude of non-state armed groups (NSAGs) including violent extremists and actors engaging in communal conflict; and, second, weak state capacity, limited infrastructure and ongoing conflict. While the guidance we provide stems directly from our own experience, we hope that some of the lessons may resonate in other highly politicized weak states with an ongoing conflict.
Our chapter is structured in response to a series of methodological and pragmatic questions: how should academic researchers assess risk and ethical challenges in environments of insecurity?