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Using art to build trust in violent extremism research

Whom do we produce knowledge for in violent extremism (VE) research? Despite an array of rich knowledge emanating from VE research, very few studies venture into the experiential journey of building trust between the researcher and the researched. Identifying ways to foster trust while adhering to values and ethics is critical to the research’s integrity. This article is based on findings from a workshop on building trust between researchers and those being researched using art-based approaches. The workshop revealed complex nuances surrounding the processes of building trust between the research participants and the researchers based on localities, life experiences, and lived realities with the multifaceted phenomenon of VE.

Trust-building is important when we  study topics like ‘violent extremism’. Just like the term ‘terrorism,’ the definition and meaning of the term ‘violent extremism’ depends on who defines it. This is further embedded with the questions, Where is the term violent extremism defined? How is it defined? And why is it defined? These questions are power-based and integrated with who has the power to define these terms. This means that the researcher is often in the position of having to consider multiple actors with various interests, including the donor, government, or other institutional expectations, with community perceptions usually playing only a minor role in the definition equation.

At the same time, researchers working on VE are attuned to dominant interpretations of Islamist extremism rather than local realities in the construction of the term where extremism can also be defined as political violence led by the state. Value-laden biases influence discussions on VE, particularly when questions are designed to interrogate Islamist extremism rather than an open approach to understanding local perceptions. In stigmatized communities in the coastal regions of Kenya, fatigued about research on Islamist extremism and perceptions of the researcher as representing positions from outside the community make the trust-building exercise difficult. Therefore, the need for prolonged trust-building in the research process can take months or even years.

Competence-based trust is important for studying complex topics such as VE. Prior experience in conducting such research makes researchers more credible. Novice researchers need to first gain acceptance via trusted gatekeepers in the field if they are to venture into complex areas marked by suspicion or bias towards outsiders. The key is to take time and explore the context before embarking on the research. A researcher’s social and emotional skills in interactions, which are bolstered by cultural literacy and empathy strengthen trust. However, it needs to be acknowledged that the process of building trust is complicated and involves ups and downs. Therefore, innovative methodological approaches are needed in studying trust in VE research.

Trust-building in VE research faces similar challenges as conflict and development research fieldwork when academic research  fails to bring local benefits.  Even when academics try their best to make it clear to potential interviewees that they will receive no direct benefit from participating in the research, it can be challenging to be confident that the participant understood the message, as often the expectations are different. For some community members, participation in research appears to only benefit the  academic, with little benefit for the community. Paying participants is often viewed as unethical; however, taking the time of participants for granted is also unethical.  Exploiting community members and their stories can also create ethical challenges for those who benefit from the knowledge-building processes. Overall, the feeling of negativity towards researchers in some over-exploited, research-fatigued localities can impede trust-building for researchers.

In research conducted in volatile areas, trust-building processes between the researcher and the researched participant remain critical. However, trust-building is less emphasized as a key criterion in the progression of knowledge-building due to the time and effort that need to be put in place for building trust. The pursuit of trust-building needs to be factored into the field research process for better research outcomes. Trust-building entails  strengthening relationships, which need to be enhanced as key facets of knowledge-building experiences.

This article is based on reflections from the research workshop, ‘Trust-Building, Gendered Nuances and Decoloniality in Researching Violent Extremism,’ conducted by Dr. Fathima Azmiya Badurdeen, Department of Social Sciences, Technical University of Mombasa. Different art-based methods were used to stimulate discussions in the workshop. The workshop was comprised of researchers working on the topic of violent extremism, and participants who had been subjects researched on the topic of violent extremism. The workshop enabled both the researchers and the researched to reflect on the research process on topics such as gender, decoloniality, and violent extremism. This workshop is part of a larger collaborative project:  Values, Ethics and Trust in Peacebuilding Network, in collaboration with Dr. Michaelina Jakala (PI) Dr. Miho Taka (Coventry University, UK), and Dr. Kyoko Okumoto (Osaka Jogaukin University, Japan), funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Networking Grant of the United Nations Year of Trust and Peace. The project is part of a five-workshop series carried out in the UK, Kenya, and the Philippines.  

The Authors:
Fathima Azmiya Badurdeen

Dr. Fathima Azmiya Badurdeen is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Faculty of Religion, Culture and Society, University of Groningen, Netherlands. She is also a Lecturer at the Department of Social Sciences, Technical University of Mombasa, Kenya. Fathima has worked as a researcher and trainer in the field of preventing and countering violent extremism and peacebuilding. Since 2012, she has worked as a researcher specializing in exploring recruitment dynamics for terrorist networks and countering violent extremism in the East African region. Prior to her work in the East African region, she also worked as a researcher, trainer, and evaluator for conflict transformation and peacebuilding projects in Sri Lanka.