What does it mean to change perspectives of knowledge production in/on Palestine and Palestinian communities in their different locations? The 2017 summer school Rooting Research in the Palestinian Context took place in Beirut, from the 22nd to the 28th of July to discuss this question. In light of a rapid transformation of Palestinian society due to political conflict, war and settler colonialism the summer school provided a space for more than 25 people from the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Jordan and Austria to deeply reflect upon social science knowledge production, its impact, and future developments. Given the rising (Palestinian) critique of research practices by (Western) scholars, journalists and international NGOs, the summer school intended to change perspectives and collectively discuss alternative research approaches. Drawing on first experiences of participants of the field workers and MA graduate training program of the APPEAR project and their trainers, the first two days started with the introduction of their work in progress and the uncertain environments within which they are conducting their research.
The difficulties of doing field work under conditions of occupation and war became visible once more, as the five participants from the Gaza Strip were not able to get permission to exit their locality due to the siege by the Israeli military. They tried to join some sessions via Skype, but the electricity cuts in Gaza – leaving them with two hours of electricity per day – made it nearly impossible.
How to navigate field work in Palestinian refugee camps in the region became one of the leading questions throughout the summer school. Professor Sari Hanafi from the American University of Beirut contributed to the event with a very personal account of his reflections on researching conflict and war over the last decades and the problems he faces as a Palestinian sociologist in the Arab world.
The summer school discussed main methodological approaches to produce critical knowledge and the researchers’ scientific, as well as the political responsibility within these processes. The participants collectively developed a practice of self-reflexivity and self-evaluation that should guide them through their research process and debated ethical dilemmas and power relations, informed by positionalities such as class, race, and gender.
Zeina Yaghi, MenEngage network coordinator at the Resource Center for Gender Equality, ABAAD, presented the differences between traditional research approaches to feminist studies. What distinguishes feminist research is, first, that it is based on the idea to create social change and to transform society, rather than just producing knowledge for the sake of generating data. Secondly, feminist research approaches have to be present during all stages of research – starting with the topic that has to be chosen, the way the data is collected and the question for whom the knowledge is produced.
Further elaborating on that, Eileen Kuttab from the Institute of Women Studies at Birzeit University reflected upon her long-standing experiences as a feminist researcher trough an audio message. She discussed the questions: What does it mean to work as a feminist scholar and activist under conditions of political conflict, war, and Israeli settler colonialism? What are necessary components of researching feminist perspectives?
Another significant contribution to the summer school was the workshop by Perla Issa from the Institute of Palestine Studies on research in the Palestinian camps between misery profiteering and resistance. She discussed her own experiences in the Palestinian camps in Lebanon as a Palestinian activist and researcher and the power relations as well as ethical dilemmas she was confronted with. Throughout her work, she dealt with and discussed research that was conducted by foreign researchers or international NGOs. She used the term “misery profiteering” to draw attention to how research takes advantage of people’s historical, economic, social and political experiences in the camps.
The last days of the summer school dealt with the question of for whom knowledge should be produced and what the requirements for researching alternative development within the Palestinian society are.
Helmut Krieger from the Department of Development Studies at the University of Vienna together with his colleague Ayman Abdul Majeed from the Center for Development Studies at Birzeit University and the participants started to disentangle the field of tension of different power relations accompanying social science research.
How can a researcher maneuver these interrelated power relations? Helmut Krieger mentioned that first of all we have to acknowledge that our research is part of that field of power relations. Often, our research can be used as a tool for various actors to legitimize their power. If we understand these entanglements, we can start to think about how to structure our research differently.
The participants concluded that it would not be enough to collect data, write a summary, give recommendations and leave. They argued that the people must be directly impacted by the research (results) and that their outcomes have to be connected with social initiatives and the youth in the camps. For them, it is crucial for the researcher to be attached to the people and that knowledge should be authorized by the communities in which we are engaged. The people themselves will decide if their research contributes to social transformations, not the researchers.
The general structure of the summer school included joint activities such as a trip to the northern city of Jbeil and the public panel discussion Critical Knowledge Production in Imperial Times as well as a visit to the refugee camps Burj Barajneh and Shatila close to Beirut.
The summer school also provided a space to reflect upon the APPEAR project, to evaluate the work that has been done so far as well as perspectives of the future