Analysis & Opinions - American Political Science Association

The Ethical Challenges of Field Research in the Syrian Refugee Crisis

| Apr. 16, 2019

This is part of the MENA Politics Newsletter, Volume 2, Issue 1, Spring 2019. Download the PDF of this piece here and the full issue here.

The Syrian refugee crisis has displaced more people than any conflict since the Second World War and garnered a great deal of attention among researchers from numerous disciplines. In political science, scholars have conducted field research around the crisis on a wide range of topics including the dynamics of activism and protest within and outside of Syria; host community sentiments and behavior toward Syrians; the response of host states; Syrian refugees’ challenges and responses, including strategies of service access and Syrian community problem-solving; consequences and challenges of the large-scale immigration of Syrians; and Syrians’ attitudes, framing, perceptions, and narration of the conflict.

The emerging body of research is driven not only by the topic’s pressing importance, but also by the often-unexamined motivator of the accessibility of research participants, which is largely due to their vulnerability and limited mobility. Researchers’ goals are often feasible with Syrian refugees, more so than with alternative participant populations, because many Syrians are geographically concentrated, are registered in humanitarian databases, and have grown acclimated to participation in data collection by humanitarian NGOs. This relative ease of access makes research on Syrians practically easier and also more ethically fraught. In this piece, we would like to take a step back to look at the particular ways research on displaced Syrians presents distinct ethical and research dilemmas to which political scientists must pay closer attention. While this article is by no means an exhaustive review of the concerns and challenges political scientists face in conducting research on Syrian refugees, we seek to discuss the most pressing issues researchers headed to the field should consider and advisors with graduate students conducting fieldwork should be aware of.

Why do researchers have a responsibility to refugees?

In this article, we build on the work of other political scientists who have focused on ethics of participant safety and confidentiality, and data security, particularly in non-democratic or fragile contexts and with vulnerable communities.[17]Moving beyond the “do no harm” principles that form the foundation of much of institutional ethical commitments, research on refugees and forced migrants must confront what Jacobsen and Landau call the “dual imperative”: namely, satisfying the demands and expectations of your academic discipline, while also producing knowledge that improves policy and advances the interests of refugees.[18] The balance that scholars strike between the two imperatives varies but no scholarship on displaced Syrians in political science can disregard either objective.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Mourad, Lama and Daniel Masterson.“The Ethical Challenges of Field Research in the Syrian Refugee Crisis.” American Political Science Association, April 16, 2019.

The Authors

Daniel Masterson