The perils of fieldwork in authoritarian states

Doctoral students and researchers in the social and political sciences need more training to deal with the perils of fieldwork in authoritarian states in Southeast Asia, according to two experts on the region.

They note that existing “one size fits all” recommendations on field research “presume the setting to be liberal democratic regimes” rather than the less accessible or less secure and transparent authoritarian regimes prevalent in the region.

“The discipline of political science is poorly positioned to guide its own scholars on the best way to perform field research in countries lacking guarantees for norms of speech, movement and scholarship,” say Meredith Weiss, associate professor of political science at the State University of New York at Albany in the United States, and Lee Morgenbesser, a lecturer in comparative politics at Griffith University in Australia, in a just-published paper that draws on their own and other academics’ experiences of working in such countries.

“The implications of this lacuna are acute in Southeast Asia,” where nine out of 11 countries are classified as having authoritarian regimes, they say in their paper published in the Asian Studies Review entitled “Survive and Thrive: Field research in authoritarian Southeast Asia”.

While the pitfalls for researchers from overseas are more obvious in military-ruled states in the region – such as Thailand or Myanmar, even though the latter holds elections – it may be less evident in Malaysia’s “competitive authoritarianism”, or Singapore’s “dominant party rule”, Weiss told University World News. Nonetheless academics can, and have, run afoul of authoritarian restrictions on research in these countries as well as in Cambodia, Vietnam and Brunei.

“While there are few active conflict zones in the region, hotspots remain and may emerge, and lack of accountability, limited civil liberties, episodic violence and everyday crime, especially where the police lack professionalism, pose real hazards,” the authors wrote.

While foreign academics have the ability and usually the intention to leave after their research and the freedom to publish and work in their home country or elsewhere, “they still experience limits on academic freedom in the course of their field research.”

Weiss notes that with increased training in the social and political sciences, for instance in quantitative methods for doctoral students and early-career researchers, “there is often little time left in the graduate training schedule, or little attention paid, for any systematic training for field research, and people go without necessarily knowing what they’re getting into.”

She points to cases in Myanmar recently of the jailing of Reuters journalists investigating the conditions of Rohingyas in that country or cases of lèse majesté against academics, journalists and bloggers in Thailand. “Those sorts of incidents, whether against academics or journalists, have heightened awareness anew of the serious considerations [of field work].”

Authoritarianism, including curbs on civil liberties and academic freedom, “contorts the research process”, the paper notes, and applies even in some purported democracies, where academic freedom is curtailed. The challenge is to have qualitative research “with enough detail to be credible, but not enough to get anyone into trouble", according to the paper.

“Personal safety – for oneself as well as one’s interlocutors and intermediaries – is of paramount concern,” the authors write.

One recommendation is to ‘lie low’. “The more visible you are, the more likely you will be noticed, perhaps judged as partisan (which might make it difficult to obtain interviews or information from some quarters in future) and be scrutinised,” they say.

At the same time researchers need to be able to continue researching the region in the future, so the risks are not simply restricted to the time the researchers are in the field.

“Several of the most renowned Southeast Asianists have had to shift their attention to another country due to either their own banishment from or crackdowns on research generally in their initial or intended country of focus,” says Weiss, noting this often comes after substantial investment in language study.

Archive access

There are also implications for visiting scholars wanting to access archival material, although the authors note “there is no correlation between authoritarian regime type and relative accessibility of archives”.

According to the authors, Cambodia, Singapore and Thailand offer the “least troublesome” national repositories for research, while Malaysia, Myanmar and Vietnam “routinely frustrate scholars through some combination of oblique application procedures, excessive questioning and local [local institution] affiliation requirements.”

It is not just about access. Often “the opacity and secrecy of authoritarian regimes” means some sources “are either destroyed rather than saved, or never recorded”, the paper says, adding that “most authoritarian regimes are adept at either not keeping or securely concealing records of the very events , issues and proceedings that are most relevant to political scientists”, according to the paper. It suggests alternative routes to securing material, such as personal papers of politicians and others involved.

One of their recommendations is to submit an application to investigate “a cognate but less sensitive research topic if you anticipate resistance”, something the authors say they have used in researching issues such as elections, democracy, human rights, protest movements and student activism.

But they also provide other advice such as affiliating with a local institution with contacts and access with information ‘gatekeepers’, as well as a solid knowledge of the situation on the ground.


In Australia, with a large number of Asian political science programmes and researchers, co-author Morgenbesser and others found from a survey of graduate political science students that just over 60% believed they had not received enough training in methods, let alone training on how to conduct field research.

There are few rules for researching on the ground in foreign countries. Those that exist, such as the human subjects research Institutional Review Board (IRB) guidelines in the United States and research guidelines in Australia, are general rules for working with humans in any context, according to Weiss, and stem from medical ethics and experimentation, and were drawn from cases in the late 1990s for social sciences, particularly anthropology and ethnography and the way they study communities, recognising that social scientists can do harm too.

“Having seen some of the IRB processes, where trying to come up with a set of rules, there is too much diversity in the subject of what to study and how to study it,” she notes. For example, a lot of researchers from abroad are going to Southeast Asia “with laptops and doing surveys and field experiments and viewing Southeast Asia as a source of quantitative or survey data rather than a place to be studied ethnographically – those people should also be subject to some sorts of norms and guidelines,” says Weiss.

“The most common approach to research ethics, in human-subject review board guidelines in the US, tends to focus on protecting subjects rather than scholars themselves,” she says, adding what is needed is proper training for researchers.

“The less common approach, which exists in many Australian universities, gives more emphasis to protecting researchers – but sometimes at the expense of their intended research. Particularly in authoritarian regimes, researchers [and their coteries] may themselves be monitored by security or ancillary forces and harassed or otherwise obstructed,” the paper notes.

There is a role for overseas academics doing research, and not just because research funding might be more generous in Western countries. “All the records might be in a colonial language that not that many people in that country still speak but that outsiders might speak,” Weiss explains.

“But there can be different local niceties that change the balance of who has better access or easier access and who can do something with those resources or who is at liberty to write about them,” she says, noting that sometimes overseas academics are treated better in some countries than local researchers.

But the authors are clear, however challenging the research may be to visiting Western academics, “the hurdles are all the higher, and the risks very much greater, for local scholars”.