Lessons from the Field, by Irina Soboleva, AC4 Fellow

Irina Soboleva is a PhD Candidate in Comparative Politics and Cognitive Psychology. She combines field experiments and ethnography to enhance community engagement in polarized societies.

Behind the Scenes: Three Lessons from the Field

This summer, I have been running a field experiment on civil participation in Eastern Ukraine. In what comes below, I focus on three ethnographic lessons that might be of interest to the Columbia community and to everyone who is interested in peacebuilding and sustainable development.

Photo: Ukrainian Fields

Lesson 1: Beware of Pre-field Expectations

If I could make one recommendation to aspiring scholars who run fieldwork overseas and do not know the local environment well enough, it would be as follows: do not base your understanding of the field on the dominant explanatory narrative in your discipline. You might declare your priors, but you should set them aside at the very moment of your first interaction with locals. Let the field tell you its complex, non-linear, incoherent stories and adjust your instrument accordingly.

What academic mainstream prefers to portray as an ethnic conflict might be in fact a class conflict, or a conflict over redistribution, moderated by a set of variables you would never bring in your analysis before the field (Jessica Pisano has great reflections on these topics in her scholarship of land redistribution in the post-Soviet space (2009, 2010)). Likewise, do not be misled by media frameworks. Our responsibility as scholars is to enter the field with a tabula rasa, learning to speak the language of localities and giving voice to those who do not have access to the media.

Photo: Ukrainian Roses

Lesson 2: Should We Cooperate with Elites?

Previous ethnographic exploration shows that experimental studies, being usually implemented by foreign research teams, do not empower citizens with tools to overcome existing economic and social cleavages (see Chatterjee (2018), Rao et al. (2017)). Moreover, foreign researchers usually cooperate with elites, thus exaggerating present tensions. At the same time, we have few options but to secure the support of local stakeholders. IRB procedures explicitly encourage us to solicit local site approval, as the lack of one makes the implementation of fieldwork virtually impossible.

The problem is that local actors’ support always comes at a price. And the non-material price is the hardest to bear. Some will want to filter the questions you want to ask. Some will try to prevent you from running your experiment on certain demographic groups or in certain regions. While there is no easy solution to this dilemma, keep it in mind when you select a research site for your experiment. Carefully scan potential sites before your launch your fieldwork and decide what would be your red lines in negotiation with local elites. Find local endorsers and gate-keepers and be aware of your gains and losses from cooperation. Remember to prioritize science and interests of your subjects over everything else.

Photo: A Dnieper River Port at Night

Lesson 3: Let Respondents Formulate Your Survey

I finalized my survey questions after talking with those from the region and exposing the drafts of my questionnaire to lay people with polar political views. Sometimes, it took me days to negotiate a single word choice that would be acceptable for both supporters and opponents of the government, those migrating to the Ukrainian-speaking West and those fleeing from the war zone in the Russian-speaking East. These efforts were well worth it. The adjustments did not only facilitate the recruitment process but also made the experiment participation comfortable and non-triggering to subjects from various linguistic and regional backgrounds.

I am looking forward to sharing the results of my experimental study at the 2019 AC4 Annual Sustaining Peace Forum.



Author: Irina Soboleva is pursuing a doctorate at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Columbia, focused on Comparative Politics and Cognitive Psychology. She studies civil engagement under illiberal policies and economic hardship. With the fellowship, she travelled to Ukraine, bringing innovative cognitive therapy and experimental fieldwork design to test competing mechanisms behind local democratic consolidation in cooperation with civil society.

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