Navigating research in a fragmented, turbulent context

Having lived in the Gaza Strip for more than 22 years, I know from first-hand experience that this is an area that requires urgent focused research.

The turbulent conditions in Gaza and the deteriorating context for its population mean that both its people and its institutions have been exposed to repeated and combined stressors that are seriously detrimental.

These are necessarily shaping those people and institutions in significant ways, accentuating a culture of suffering in society at large.

It is very rare that the life of Gaza’s population has been explored in depth. As a researcher, I have not only had to keep pace with rapid changes on the ground which have affected my analysis, but also to navigate a body of literature on Gaza characterised by its scarcity, outdatedness and fragmentation, mirroring the Gaza context itself.

Researching the Gaza Strip

I hold an insider-outsider positionality when it comes to Gaza. Being a Palestinian who has lived in Gaza and worked at its public schools and two of its universities, I have an intellectual curiosity about the place. Studying and working in the United Kingdom too, I have learnt academic research methods, theories and skills that have enabled me to harness this personal interest and contribute to understanding Gaza as a field of knowledge.

That said, I have attempted to fill the gap in the literature on Gaza by conducting three large-scale research studies, two on higher education, as part of both my MSc and PhD at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge respectively.

Most recently, I wrote a report entitled The Political Economy of Health in the Gaza Strip (Occupied Palestinian Territory), as part of the R4HC-MENA project, which was published as a special report by the University of Cambridge Centre for Business Research (CBR).

In a foreword to this report, CBR Director Professor Simon Deakin commented: “Much is written about Gaza, in particular when the crisis there is periodically escalated, but little is known about the conditions of life for its population. There is a dearth of systematic research on Gazan society and institutions.

“This report is a dispassionate account, which is sobering in its implications. In detail, and with evidence of a kind which is all too infrequently available, it offers a diagnosis, and the beginning of a way forward, for a situation which those who read it will surely regard as unsustainable.”

The state of the literature

The difficulty of accessing Gaza and its turbulent conditions have limited academic research, making it very fragmented. There is a severe lack of library and technological resources and tightened restrictions on academic mobility. These undermine Gaza universities’ capacity to develop as research institutions, as most, if not all of them, remain focused on teaching.

Although some research is being done as part of student requirements for a masters degree, this research is limited in scale, mostly quantitative and does not sufficiently benefit from access to international expertise and knowledge or opportunities for wider dissemination.

As such, most of this work remains limited to Gaza library shelves, functioning mainly as a graduate requirement rather than working to create social and economic impact for Gaza.

International researchers are also faced with the challenge of how to conduct research on Gaza, which as Sara Roy from the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University has previously pointed out, remains a context of ‘ambiguity’.

This has resulted in significant gaps in the literature, with studies being splintered in terms of their time, space, sources and topic focus, making it very difficult for a researcher of any field in Gaza to develop a coherent and comprehensive narrative of the situation.

Most literature available is produced by Gaza ministries, NGOs and international humanitarian and developmental institutions which work in Gaza. Although these are helpful, they are not sufficient and there is a need for a thorough academic analysis that would enable us to understand the complex socio-political and economic context of Gaza in depth and from a bottom-up perspective.

The politicisation of the Gaza context also impacts the literature, affecting the reliability of data and statistics. The fragmentation of sources of information (so often with competing political agendas) and the lack of a unified technical platform for data production suggest that the available information on Gaza can be heavily susceptible to bias and inaccuracy.

Researching conflict-affected areas is an emerging field of knowledge, with common contestation over definitions and terminology.

In the case of Gaza, this is even more apparent as, while some writers may describe Gaza as under occupation, others may choose to stress that it is in internal conflict or even in a state of peace as a result of the Oslo peace agreement.

This creates confusion in the literature on Gaza, as some writers may choose to combine it with the West Bank, assuming that both share a similar context, although there are significant differences between the two from all perspectives, including socially, economically, geographically and politically.

Another challenge is the continuously changing political circumstances, some of which can be so dramatic that they render it necessary to change the analysis of the data that has just been completed. In this race for updates and their implications, the researcher ends up exhausted, but also faced with the reality that the outdated literature they have drawn on may become even more outdated than at the start of the research.

Lessons learned: What can be done?

First, it is important to acknowledge that your research is conducted in a fragmented context so there will be gaps and limitations. These mean most studies on the Gaza Strip, despite the best ambitions, can be best described as ‘exploratory’.

Second, in order to gain a perspective on an issue of inquiry, for example, on higher education in Gaza and how it is affected by the occupation and internal conflict, the researcher may find it necessary to diversify their search to include interdisciplinary literature on Gaza, consulting writings on politics, economics, health, higher education, sociology, religion and other areas, as well as technical reports, blogs, theses and respected news channels’ coverage of the area.

Third, expanding the timescale for your literature search can also be useful as up-to-date writings on your topic may not be available. In this context, past descriptions of the situation may offer some guidance in clarifying your research.

Fourth, it is imperative that the researcher takes a critical stance, particularly when it comes to using data and statistics.

Fifth, from the outset, it is important to determine the voice and representation of your research because, based on this, your choices of terminology with regard to Gaza can be transparently shared with the reader and you can acknowledge rather than overlook that contestation exists.

Sixth, there is a need for in-depth qualitative studies on Gaza that prioritise the experiences of people from this area over outsider top-down narratives about it. This can help create new meanings and definitions that represent these experiences.

Lastly, triangulating the literature between different sources and collecting data from different participants and institutions can offer useful insight into your topic of research.

Do justice to your interviewees

Personally, I see researching the Gaza Strip as a privilege. It gives me the ability to reflect on myself and my society and contribute to knowledge about this area of ‘de-development’, working to improve the life conditions for its population.

I also feel it requires a large degree of commitment, insight and creativity to do the research well and be able to link the lacking and fragmented pieces of literature together, which is a very interesting undertaking.

One excellent piece of advice that helped me through this challenging endeavour, and which I would like to pass on, is from Emeritus Professor Diane Reay during my Cambridge PhD study: “Aim to do justice to your interviewees/research!”. I always remember this and it always fires my heart with a sense of responsibility to persevere in researching Gaza.

Dr Mona Jebril is a research fellow at the Centre for Business Research, University of Cambridge, UK, working as part of the Global Challenges Research Fund project: Research for Health in Conflict. Her contribution focuses on analysing the political economy of health in Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, in relation to the Syrian conflict and the humanitarian crisis of refugees in these countries.