Towards an Ethic of Friendship in Academic Research

Student Graduation at SURF
Student Graduation at SURF

By Noam Schimmel, Lecturer, International and Area Studies and Development Practice

A Reflection on Rwanda and Survivors of the Genocide Against the Tutsi

Since the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi and, in particular, since the mid-2000s, there has been a growing and considerable amount of academic research taking place in Rwanda by global researchers, particularly from Europe and North America.

Few countries in Africa have achieved such academic research attention, and much of it pertains to the genocide against the Tutsi, its political and historical origins, the nature of the genocide, and its consequences for Rwandans.

In conducting field research in Rwanda over many years, Rwandans often reflect to me their disappointment at the number of researchers who come to Rwanda, make temporary connections to local Rwandans necessary for their research, and then after a period of time or even many repeat visits, leave Rwanda with little follow-up and care for the individuals and communities with whom they have engaged and who were vital to their research.

To be sure, this is not true of all researchers and perhaps not even of a majority; but it has been clearly and repeatedly expressed to me as a common occurrence that happens frequently and predictably, and one that is frustrating to Rwandans on several levels.

My comments here pertain to my own experiences in Rwanda, but it is likely that these reflect a dynamic that is not unique to Rwanda or Africa, and that typifies fundamental aspects of academic field research and the imperatives of academic knowledge production and dissemination wherever they take place globally, irrespective of the particularities of the location.

However, the Rwandan context has a uniqueness to it stemming from the history of the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi, its legacy for genocide survivors, and the enduring disadvantage and marginalization they face. It also has particular relevance to researchers working in the developing world/global south, where the gap between their economic and social resources and those of locals may be particularly great, creating asymmetries in various forms of power including discursive, political, and economic power.

In reflecting on friendship, I want to suggest that bonds of friendship are bulwarks against the kind of objectification and instrumentalization that is all too common in academic research entailing field-work centered on engaging with individuals and communities outside of a researcher’s country and/or community of origin.

Friendship adds a dimension – both ethical and emotional – that can make research in both process and product more ethically and socially responsible, equitable, sensitive, responsive and consequential to locals generally and in this case study, Rwandan genocide survivors in particular.

Like journalists, development and humanitarian aid workers, and diplomats, academics have a tendency to ‘fly in’ and ‘fly out.’ Even if they make repeated visits to a country and even if they stay for extended periods of time of several months or even as long as a year, their commitment to a country and its people frequently lacks durability. Their end goals tend to be defined not by the relationships they develop with locals, but by a particular product they are creating which may be a Master’s thesis or doctorate, academic article, or book.

This effort tends to orient their field experience. Friendships of differing qualities and degrees of closeness and significance may and typically do emerge from it, but they are often incidental to these efforts, short-lived, and sometimes do not develop at all due to the nature of research, the gaps between visitors and locals, and the nature of both the process and goals of academic knowledge production.

I argue that academics would benefit from greater reflection about and commitment to friendship, by which I mean friendship not in sense of being more aggregable and pleasant, or even more social, (though all those are certainly positive) – but in the ethically and emotionally substantive sense of being more committed to friendship as an ethical practice of caring, commitment, and reciprocity, and one that should influence both the how of their research and the subjects to which it attends.

I want, in particular, to invite researchers in Rwanda – whatever their research area – whether development, humanitarianism, history, sociology, anthropology, political science or any other field – to strive to make meaningful connections with survivors of the genocide against the Tutsi and forge friendships with them.

The bulk of research undertaken in Rwanda today and in the last decade does not center genocide survivors and not only does it not center them, it also minimally acknowledges them. A very small number of academics globally address the realities and struggles of Rwandan genocide survivors in post-genocide Rwanda. This lack of attention to the perspectives, rights, and welfare of Rwandan genocide survivors contributes to their marginalization and further entrenches it.

Marginalization of genocide survivors and their resulting disadvantage characterizes a significant aspect of contemporary life in Rwanda today and deserves academic attention and critical engagement that analyzes and illuminates these inequalities and injustices.

Academia is not alone in contributing to this marginalization. In the fields of development and humanitarian aid, global NGOs working in Rwanda such as CARE, World Vision, UN agencies, and national aid agencies such as USAID – the US Agency for International Development systematically neglect the voices, experiences, and human rights of genocide survivors in their policies, priorities, and programming.

Academic research needs to be more mindful of the types of relationships it privileges, and whether it allows for and encourages more genuinely dialogical, empathetic, mutual, and ethically sound ones of friendship and care that respect and promote human dignity and human rights and that are mindful of and responsive to a concern with social justice.

Friendship is obviously not something that can be made a requirement of research, nor should it. It emerges organically from patterns of connection, communication, and engaging with different communities as well as from relationships with a particular place such as a town, neighborhood, village, or an institution such as a school or university. It can also happen most naturally on the individual, interpersonal level. But the value of friendship needs highlighting because so often academic research happens outside of the context of the bonds of affection and reciprocity, mutual care and concern that characterize friendship.

Friendship can also be offered as much as it can emerge organically. Academic researchers should be mindful that much of our work can only emerge from the choices individuals make to act towards us in ways that are neither instrumental nor self-serving, but stem more from the openness and magnanimity that characterize friendship.

Anyone coming from abroad to a country they are unfamiliar with, where they do not speak the local language and lack knowledge of the country’s history, culture, and society will require the assistance of many different local people. Whether or not we acknowledge both the range and depth of that assistance varies amongst academic researchers.

Such acknowledgment is a seed that can grow into deeper gratitude and long-lasting friendship.

While there are many academics who study the Rwandan genocide, relatively few engage in a meaningful and substantive way with genocide survivors and in a way that centers their perspectives, histories, vulnerabilities, and ongoing challenges they face securing their human rights.

Some academics focus entirely on perpetrators of the genocide, without addressing the experiences and perspectives of genocide survivors.

While it is entirely legitimate for academic research to focus on a particular area or community, it is also important that researchers be mindful of how focusing exclusively on one such community – particularly genocide perpetrators – will exclude the most marginalized and disadvantaged. It will also – by definition – privilege men and exclude women, because the overwhelming majority of Rwanda’s genocide perpetrators were men and the majority of its survivors were women.

Researchers who focus on genocide perpetrators are able to turn their attention to the experiences and perspectives of genocide survivors, rather than to focus exclusively on perpetrators if they choose to embrace an ethics of care towards, inclusion of, and proactive respect for genocide survivors.

The French journalist, Jean Hatzfeld, for example – who has compiled a landmark collection of testimonies of genocide perpetrators in his book Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak, shows tremendous sensitivity towards the perspectives and experiences of genocide survivors in his book, Life Laid Bare: The Survivors in Rwanda Speak. He illustrates how it is possible to turn one’s attention as a researcher to survivors and their rights, welfare, narratives, and experiences even if one also pursues parallel research on genocide perpetrators.

It is time for a paradigm shift that brings an ethics of friendship and care to academic research and especially to academic research on post-genocide Rwanda. This is particularly a challenge in my fields of international studies, international development, and political science, but it cuts across academic fields.
Reciprocity should characterize the relationships of researchers with locals, and locals should be asked to define what a meaningful reciprocity would look like for them.

In the case of Rwanda, academic researchers should take care to consider how whatever one studies impacts genocide survivors and how it could potentially help, harm, or be indifferent to them, their human rights, and their human dignity.

If researchers have spent many months or years – as if often the case – studying genocide perpetrators, for example, consequentially providing them with a rhetorical and an academic platform – centering them in their research and publications, centering their speech and experiences, and centering their perspectives, researchers need to be mindful of the way in which such an exclusive focus on genocide perpetrators can contribute to the erasure of genocide survivors in research, publications, and public discourse which is impacted by the publications of academic researchers.

Lack of engagement with genocide survivors in Rwanda contributes to their marginalization and disadvantage – both within Rwanda and within the academic community globally, as well as the humanitarian, development, legal, and public policy communities.

The perspectives and priorities of these communities have an enormous impact on the relative respect, protection, and fulfillment of the human rights of Rwandan genocide survivors.

A sincere and intentional ethics of friendship would go a long way to beginning to address these injustices and to recognizing and advancing the human dignity and human rights of Rwandan genocide survivors, listening to and amplifying their perspectives and voices, and advancing efforts to secure justice and equity for them as individuals and as a community.

Republished from Berkeley Blog

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