By Will Andrews, Aberystwyth University
A recent article in the journal Area, written by Matthew Benwell (2014) discusses the challenges of conducting research on different sides of a socio-political conflict and is based on his fieldwork experiences in Argentina and the Falkland Islands. Recently post-conflict tensions between Britain and Argentina have been highlighted by an incident involving the motoring programme Top Gear. During filming for the programme’s Christmas special in Argentina one of the three cars used was seen to have the number plate H982 FKL. This was believed by many Argentinians to be a distasteful reference to the 1982 Falklands conflict (BBC News, 2014). However a spokesperson for the BBC denied that the number plate was chosen deliberately and that it was “…a very unfortunate coincidence.” (BBC News, 2014). The programme’s film crew were forced to flee the country by protesters who threw stones at the car involved and at the film crew’s vehicles. Whilst this incident is unlike anything that might happen during fieldwork it shows that there are underlying tensions in fieldwork spaces which may remain many years after a conflict. In particular when the person present, be they motoring journalist or academic researcher, identifies with a nationality previously involved in said conflict. The tensions which this incident revealed are well known to British researcher Benwell, who found that his being from the UK raised suspicions with some Argentinian participants however largely they were curious about his presence in remote Argentina where being British was seen as ‘exotic’ (p167).
Benwell (p164) argues that those working in areas of socio-political conflict or with post-conflict tensions should think more self-reflexively about their nationality and the performativity of this in the field. As geographers we should think about our positionality in the field and think reflexively about factors such as, “class, gender, ‘race’, sexuality, ableness, age and education, whether we are a parent or not” (Skelton, 2001: 89). Yet often, as Benwell (p164) argues, we do not think about our nationality as one such factor. Furthermore Benwell argues that as geographer’s we understand that national identity is dynamic and can be performed differently depending on a range of factors and influences, in his case these were gender, age and class. Nationality is performed relationally rather than being predetermined (p167). In actuality Benwell’s positionality as a British researcher did not lead to conflict in the field although he notes that it may have restricted him as participants spoke variously of following a certain official line in answering his questions (p165). Participants had a chance to give Argentine arguments about the sovereignty dispute to a British researcher with an ultimately British audience. Furthermore Benwell’s ability to speak Argentinian Spanish (p167) was helpful in gaining the trust and confidence of participants. Whilst this article provides a detailed reading of how performing nationality can play out in the post-conflict field it also acts as a call for more methodological writing on nationality as a part of researcher positionality, particularly in geopolitical research contexts.
Benwell, M. C. (2014) ‘Considering nationality and performativity: undertaking research across the geopolitical divide in the Falkland Islands and Argentina’, Area, 46(2), 163-169
‘Protests cut short Top gear shoot’ BBC News 4th October 2014
Skelton, H. (2001) ‘Cross-cultural research: issues of power, positionality and ‘race’ ‘, In Limb, M. & Dwyer C. (eds.) Qualitative methodologies for geographers: issues and debates, Arnold, London, 87-100