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Field research in conflict environments: Methodological challenges and snowball sampling

Nissim Cohen and Tamar Arieli
Journal of Peace Research
Vol. 48, No. 4 (july 2011), pp. 423-435
Published by: Sage Publications, Ltd.
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/23035205
Page Count: 13
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Abstract

Conducting research in conflict environments is a challenge, given their complexity and common attitudes of distrust and suspicion. Yet, conflict and methodology are usually analyzed as separate fields of interest. Methodological aspects of field work in conflict environments have not been systematically analyzed. This article addresses the central methodological problems of research conducted in conflict environments. We suggest the use of the snowball sampling method (hereafter, SSM) as an answer to these challenges. The effectiveness of this method has been recognized as significant in a variety of cases, mainly regarding marginalized populations. We claim that in conflict environments, the entire population is marginalized to some degree, making it 'hidden' from and 'hard to reach' for the outsider researcher. The marginalization explains why it is difficult to locate, access and enlist the cooperation of the research populations, which in a non-conflict context would not have been difficult to do. SSM directly addresses the fears and mistrust common to the conflict environment and increases the likelihood of trusting the researcher by introduction through a trusted social network. We demonstrate how careful use of SSM as a 'second best' but still valuable methodology can help generate cooperation. Therefore, the evaluation of SSM, its advantages and limitations in implementation in conflict environments can be an important contribution to the methodological training of researchers. In addition to its effectiveness under conditions of conflict, SSM may, in some cases, actually make the difference between research conducted under constrained conditions and research not conducted at all. Together with our experiences in the field, we supply several insights and recommendations for optimizing the use of SSM in a conflict environment.

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