Promoting access to quality, safe, and relevant education for all persons affected by crisis

Conducting Doctoral Fieldwork in Education in Emergencies: Qualitative Research in the oPt

By Amy Kapit, New York University, USA

In the early morning of October 30, 2011, I found myself standing outside of an Israeli checkpoint near the Old City area of the city of Hebron, watching as school children and teachers passed through it, on their way to school. The Palestinian old city of Hebron is a flashpoint for the Palestinian and Israeli conflict. With sites of religious and historic significance to both sides, it is a deeply contested area. It is also the only urban area in the West Bank that has become home to a few small Israeli settlements and, therefore, has a significant Israeli military presence. Palestinian school children and teachers attending school have to cross checkpoints, at which they frequently report searches, delays, and detainment by Israeli soldiers. Additionally, there are reports of harassment by Israeli settlers, who have also vandalized schools in the area numerous times.

I was in Hebron, and the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) in general, to do research related to my PhD dissertation, looking at what was being done to address violence and harassment committed against students, teachers, and schools in the context of a fledgling global movement to protect education. With the wide range of violations against education occurring in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip*,  it was an extremely appropriate setting for my study.

To answer my research questions, I had chosen to do six months of qualitative fieldwork, using three data collection tools:

  • Participant-Observation supporting and observing the workings of the Education Cluster and Child Protection Working Group
  • Semi-Structured Interviews with members of these groups
  • Document Analysis of program materials

Why (Qualitative) Research in Education in Emergencies

Education in Emergencies remains a fairly new field. Consequently, there has not yet been significant research empirically testing the connections between various facets of education and armed conflict/natural disaster. Nor has there been much evaluation (either formative—examining the process of project development and implementation—or summative—analyzing its effects) on different practices for addressing the range of negative impacts that they have on each other (see, e.g., Burde et al. 2011). This base of research is important to develop since it can help both practitioners and academics better understand the problems they seek to address and show how those problems can be most effectively mitigated with as few negative side-effects as possible.

Quantitative and qualitative research is each appropriate for answering certain types of research questions. While quantitative studies can test what types of education and interventions are linked to which outcomes, qualitative investigations can explain why and how those factors are linked, looking in much greater detail at each step along the process.

In the case of my research questions, a qualitative field study was most suitable because I was interested in understanding the minute details of project development. Acting as a participant-observer enabled me to actually witness decisions being made as well as the perspectives of the different people involved. Face-to-face semi-structured interviews helped me investigate these decisions and understandings further in a more guided manner. 

Challenges of Qualitative Fieldwork in Education in Emergencies and Lessons Learned

No research (academic, doctoral, or otherwise) is flawless, and doctoral work is, perhaps, foremost a training experience: you learn by doing. Indeed, I did learn a number of useful lessons along the way:

  1. Invest in developing relationships with practitioners. Strong relationships with practitioners and organizations working in the field are vital for successfully completing this kind of research. This is particularly critical for those of us doing research in less stable, conflict-ridden and emergency settings. Having institutional relationships can ensure that you have a security umbrella to work under. For example, without these relationships, I would not have been able to gain access to Gaza at all, nor would I have been able to feel secure visiting the Hebron checkpoint.

    Furthermore, it is only through having relationships with people that you can show that you are trustworthy. Research in emergency settings can be extremely sensitive, potentially endangering research participants. Preserving anonymity and confidentiality is essential, and those you observe or interview must know that they can trust you. During my fieldwork, building relationships and confidence that information would not be misused (and that anything sensitive that I write will be vetted by research participants) allowed me significantly greater access to information.
  2. Conduct pilot research. Pilot research helps a researcher begin to build those vital relationships even before the full study begins. Additionally, it allows a researcher to assess the appropriateness of her or his research questions, and whether or not they can be answered. Although I did not do a pilot study, I did complete my research in two three-month visits. On the first trip, I realized that my original research questions could not be answered. During my break, I was able to reflect, process, and adjust my questions and instruments to make them relevant, making my second visit more productive. However, had I carried out a pilot study, the full research process might have gone more smoothly.
  3. Reflect on your role. While carrying out qualitative fieldwork as a participant-observer, it can be tricky to draw the line between yourself as a researcher and as a participant. First, as a participant, you unavoidably influence the process you are researching, in a way becoming an actor in your own research. This was certainly the case in my study: looking at the connections between a global movement and local practices, I ended up bringing knowledge of what was happening in the global sphere to the local setting.

Second, as you develop relationships with people, you inevitably become privy to more information, and your colleagues (and friends) do not always remember that you are a researcher. It is essential to continually reflect on this in order to not misuse information. Whenever dilemmas like this occurred, I would either ask directly whether the information could be used, or write it down to ask about later, if I decided I wanted to use it.

Finally, conducting research in emergency situations often means that the researcher visits, observes, and speaks with people in vulnerable communities. It is important to ensure that this is done in a manner that ‘does no harm’ and is not exploitative. Communities in places like the oPt may be visited countless times by journalists, researchers, and others, and in the places that I visited a common complaint was that, despite these visits, they saw no change. This is a complicated problem to solve since, although the goal of social research is often to change conditions, it does not do so quickly. However, it can be useful to consider carefully what you, as a researcher, can offer the community more immediately without making promises that cannot be fulfilled and without coercing participation in your study. For example, this could involve some sort knowledge sharing or capacity building, as appropriate, offered after community members have already participated in the study.

Ph.D. students can play an important role in developing the evidence-base on education in emergencies. With relatively little research carried out to date, it is a fruitful area for work, with a wide range of questions that can be asked. Qualitative fieldwork is one useful method of investigation. Like any research strategy, it poses unique challenges—particularly when carried out in humanitarian settings—but it is critical for mitigating the effects of armed conflict on education, such as those that impact the Hebron school children. And I can attest that it is also extremely fulfilling, worthwhile, and life-changing.

*I did not include violations against the Israeli students, teachers, and schools in my study, since I was interested specifically in the work of the international humanitarian community, which does not operate there because the Israeli government has the capacity to address those attacks itself.


Amy Kapit is a consultant in education in emergencies and a doctoral candidate in International Education at New York University. Her research looks at how the humanitarian community is addressing the problem of violence, harassment, and threats against students, teachers, and schools in areas of armed conflict. More specifically, she focuses on the work of humanitarian actors in the occupied Palestinian territory and the linkages between what is occurring there and global advocacy efforts. Previously, Amy has been an intern with Save the Children in oPt, a research fellow with UNESCO, also in the oPt, and research consultant for USAID, NORAD, Education Above All, the Scholars at Risk Network, and the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack. Amy Kapit is also an INEE member.


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