Ethnographic Peace Research Workshop

Examining Strengths, Challenges, and Ethics

Dr Gearoid Millar
University of Aberdeen

The Research Idea

This project will fund a workshop to examine the strengths, challenges and ethics of an Ethnographic Peace Research (EPR) agenda and develop guidelines for the future of this emerging but as yet unproven approach to Peace Studies research. EPR is an umbrella term used to describe an approach within the broader field of Peace and Conflict Studies which incorporates various qualitative methodologies to examine and understand the local understandings, perceptions and experiences of international interventions (such as peacekeeping, post-conflict development, or governance and judicial reforms) among those living within conflict or post-conflict states. As such, EPR may incorporate methods such as long-term fieldwork, participant observation, semi-structured interviewing, grounded theory, or collaborative knowledge production.

Practitioners of EPR make various epistemological and ethical claims regarding this approach. Some claim that it provides more accurate evaluation of the local impacts of peace interventions, that it provides voice to local actors, or that it undermines the colonial tendencies of such interventions. But all of these claims are, at this point, largely unproven. The purpose of the new research agenda developed at this proposed workshop will be to examine these claims while developing and critiquing the underlying premises and practices of EPR as it has been practiced. The participants at the workshop will therefore provide papers reflecting on the strengths, challenges and ethics of EPR as a methodology (contributions to a proposed edited volume), and then design and develop new research proposals for collaborative cross-case projects to further develop the methodology for future peace research.


The past decade has seen the professionalization of international intervention for the purpose of building peace (Sending 2009: 3). This emerging “peace industry” (Mac Ginty 2012: 289; Denskus 2012: 151), has further sparked demands for evaluation and assessment and the development of various methods to accomplish this task (Duggan 2010; Paffenholz, Abu-Nimer and McCandless 2005; Bush and Duggan 2013). However, most such processes are primarily “tick-box” evaluations counting outputs as opposed to assessing substantive impacts or outcomes (Mac Ginty and Richmond 2013: 778). These approaches therefore fail to provide insight into the local experiences of intervention in post-conflict states or to recognize their unexpected, negative, or even conflict promoting impacts.

In response, some scholars – including the current applicant (Millar 2010; 2014) – have promoted ethnographic methodologies as alternative peacebuilding evaluation tools (see also Denskus 2012). As evidenced in ethnographic contributions from anthropologists (Shaw 2010; Theidon 2013; Park 2015), such methodologies can provide more nuanced and grounded assessments of local or community experiences in post-conflict states. However, critics of this “ethnographic turn” (Richmond, Kappler and Bjorkdahl 2015: 4) doubt the generalizability of such studies, worry about potentially rejecting ‘proven’ Western models of governance and peace (Paris 2010), or claim that such approaches open the local up to direct social intervention by powerful international institutions (Chandler 2013: 22).

These two perspectives (the pro and con) provide the central motivation for this project, which seeks to engage with EPR as a methodology and design collaborative cross-case research projects to assess its merits.

The Focus

In this project international interventions in post-conflict states are not addressed only as academic issues or theoretical questions. Many have come to promote EPR as a methodological approach because poverty, hunger, marginalization and violence often carry on unperturbed by political negotiations or peace settlements in faraway capitals. Indeed, in the case of Sierra Leone the PI has written extensively about the divide between institutional solutions and local expectations and experiences of peace (Millar 2012, 2014, 2015). It is the very realization that institutional top-down and elite centric interventions do not solve real-life problems in post-conflict states that has driven the ‘local turn’ and the emergence of EPR as an alternative research methodology.

Scholars engaged in EPR promote it for the very purpose of analysing more specifically the expectations and felt needs of local actors (see Robins 2009, 2011; Millar 2010; 2012; 2014) and so providing more credible responses to the problems of post-conflict peacebuilding, security, development, and justice. In examining EPR as it is conducted today and designing and conducting collaborative cross-case research projects to further develop the methodology, the research network to which this grant contributes will have multiple positive and measurable impacts on real life problems in post conflict states. It will do this by testing EPR approaches as they are used today, by calibrating EPR to best represent the local expectations and experiences in a diversity of cases, and, ultimately, by producing research findings and publications targeted to influence the policy and practice of future peace interventions.

Theoretical Novelty

While Peace and Conflict studies have always incorporated different methodological approaches, large-N studies of state-level effects such as election processes, cease fires, or peace agreements, have driven policies of peace intervention. Above and beyond the influence of other contributing disciplines – such as anthropology, economics, history, law, psychology, or sociology – International Relations (IR) and its dominant quantitative wing have influenced the policies which guide peacebuilding. But methodologies of analysis are not themselves objective and the focus within such studies on national and international data have blinded the field – and the policies it promotes – to local and community experiences of peace interventions. The actual on-the-ground impacts of peace interventions are, therefore, rarely assessed. This project contends, in response, that a focus on the ‘local’ and constructing locally relevant policy will demand a locally focused methodology.

Further, while the new-found focus on the ‘local’ has led some scholars to focus on experiences of peace interventions and generated a wave of research presented as ‘ethnographic’ within Peace and Conflict Studies, including that from international relations, in many instances such scholars have little training with ethnographic methods; practically or ethically. Therefore, because grounded assessment of local experience requires that more scholars commit to locally engaged research methodology to better inform policymakers of local needs and expectations, this project is designed to critically engage with the practical and ethical challenges and scholarly and policy implications for the field of Peace and Conflict Studies as a whole as it undertakes this challenging task.


This proposal requests funds to support a workshop at which individual researchers will both present contributions to a proposed edited volume on EPR to be edited by the PI and work on developing a new research agenda and toward submission of initial collaborative research proposals. As such, the interdisciplinary collection of scholars at the workshop will begin the process of discussion across disciplinary lines. As noted above, Peace and Conflict Studies is an inherently interdisciplinary endeavor. However, it is also a field where the disciplines often talk past each other and regularly fail to fully communicate concepts. For this workshop, therefore, a conscious effort will be made to share knowledge constructively and promote academic mobility in order to overcome these challenges.

First, workshop participants will be selected with an eye to a balance of disciplines as well as their methodological approach within the EPR umbrella (fieldwork methods, cases, etc.) and their position on the academic career trajectory. Second, within the workshop the presentation of papers will be kept to a minimum time, so as to maximize discussion and knowledge exchange. Third, participants will be asked specifically to consider their own disciplinary biases as they are embodied in their research process and how those might enlighten or complicate the approach of other disciplines. And fourth, in the discussions of a future research agenda and the development of research grant proposals an effort will be made to structure research questions and methodologies across disciplinary lines, thus ensuring interdisciplinarity in the resulting proposals.

Work Plan

The call for proposals for the EPR volume – to be edited by the PI – has been distributed and potential participants in the proposed workshop have started submitting abstracts (due 1 December 2015). The PI will review submissions and select participants for the volume and workshop by 1 February 2016, and any contributors who are attending the International Studies Association convention in Atlanta will meet then for an informal discussion of the chapters in progress (15-19 March 2016). The proposed workshop will follow from this informal meeting (mid-July 2016), when chapters have developed sufficiently to allow substantive discussion.

The workshop will last two days and bring together 10 participants and interested graduate students and staff at the University of Aberdeen. Participants will distribute chapters two weeks in advance and present their chapter only briefly; leaving ample time for discussion, comparison, and critique. The primary tasks during the workshop will be a) to provide final direction for the chapters to the volume to be submitted at the end of 2016 (31 November 2016) and b) to craft the outline of future research projects to be submitted by the end of 2017 (20 December 2017).

Format below: Date – Event – Output

1/12/2015 – EPR abstracts due – Selection of participants

15-19/3/2016 – ISA Convention meeting – Initial comments on chapters

15-16/7/2016 – Proposed Workshop – Detailed comments on chapters and Research proposal initiation

20/12/2016 – EPR volume submission – Edited volume

20/12/2017 – Research proposal submission – Collaborative research grant


One of the central purposes of the workshop is to initiate numerous future collaborative research proposals to which the initial participants, their institutions, and other international partners may be incorporated. This will include participants in the UK, Europe, North American and farther afield and, thus may be funded by various different grant schemes and eventually impact the policies and practices of a diverse array of national and international peace intervention actors. In addition to the initial edited volume to be submitted in December 2016, therefore, the workshop funded by this grant will establish a new international research network and identify key international research opportunities to which grant applications will be developed in 2016 and submitted by late 2017. It is expected that these grants will then lead to future publications (both academic and policy oriented) in the coming 5 to 10 years.

All of this will function to consolidate EPR work already being conducted and to develop a coherent and rigorous methodology for future Ethnographic Peace Research conducted across the disciplines contributing to Peace and Conflict Studies. A medium-term output, for example, is a methodological guide for graduate students and early career researchers to promote EPR and support young academics who want to use it. Linking directly back to the earlier parts of this proposal, the most ambitious longer-term outcome of this project will be more locally grounded, nuanced and representative evaluations of the local experiences and impacts of international peace interventions and more relevant scholarly contributions to peacebuilding policy.

Ethnographic Peace Research: Strengths, Challenges, and Ethics - 8-9 July 2016


The recent focus on ‘the local’ within peacebuilding research and scholarship has generated an increase in the prevalence of research presented as ‘ethnographic’ within disciplines central to Peace Research, including international relations and human rights. However, many of these disciplines have little tradition of ethnographic fieldwork and many such scholars have little training in ethnographic methods. These dynamics raise substantial questions regarding the strengths, challenges, and ethics of this ‘ethnographic turn’ in Peace Research. This project has been designed to begin answering these questions.

On the assumption that answering these questions will demand significant reflection among and constructive critique between those peace researchers who describe their work as ethnographic, this workshop will introduce and examine the various approaches to Ethnographic Peace Research (EPR) already being used in the field, explore the implications of an EPR agenda for contemporary Peace Studies theory, policy, and practice, reflect on the challenges posed to such an agenda within and outside the field, and consider future next steps for a broader EPR research network.