Blog: Research in conflict

In the last days of her preliminary fieldwork, blogger Nadya Karimasari entered a contentious area where she needs to be extra cautious about her relations with both conflicting sides.
Nadya Karimasari

In a couple of days, my preliminary fieldwork will be over. The last place in Northern Sumatra that I am currently visiting is also the most contentious area. The farmers here have been protesting against the national park that has destroyed patches of farmers’ plots scattered over different villages. According to the national park officer, those plots were located inside the national park, but the farmers have a lot of evidence to disqualify that claim.

The farmers are strongly organised and on 15 February 2017, their candidate has won the local election at district level without any support from large, conventional political parties. The farmers’ organisation was very welcoming and supportive of my research. They brought me to meet five farmers who were leading the protest and had been imprisoned for 22 days. They brought me to their partially destroyed fields, and more. I spent more time with the farmers and their families, because they are more diverse and complex than the national park bureaucracy, who have more of an official and uniformed version of what happened. The national park also asked me to stay at their barrack and observe their day-to-day office work, but I was afraid that the farmers would think I am a spy who works for the national park, no matter how hard I tried to explain.

As a social scientist at the beginning of my research, I tried to cover both sides to get a general overview. But there are different advices in social science about conducting research on conflicting parties. Some argued that if the researcher is trying to be neutral, she will only get superficial information from both sides. I must make choices and along the way, I have made and will keep making mistakes. I should do what is right according to my judgement at that given moment. Instead of feeling afraid to make an imperfect decision, I should remember that mistakes are the best teachers. I learn through mistakes. Instead of trying to stay perfect and be a perfectionist scientist, I will try to be forgiving of my shortcomings and embrace what I learn from them.

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