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Field Notes: Researching During Ramadan

Mazar e Sharif: shadow interviews

How does Ramadan – the Islamic month of fasting during which time the devout avoid eating and drinking between dawn and dusk, impact on your ability to conduct field research in a country with a large Muslim population? In the past few years I’ve run a couple of such studies – in Iran, Egypt, Malaysia and now here in Afghanistan. What does the non-devout researcher need to know in order to function effectively and appropriately during this time?

The impact of Ramadan on field research falls into a few distinct categories: social dynamics; participant dynamics; and team tactics each of which is covered in turn.

Social Dynamics

A wide variety of social situations are lubricated by the act of offering something to eat or drink. In ad-hoc street interviews accepting the offer of a glass of sweet tea moves the relationship from passing strangers to giver/receiver, and suggests to both/all parties that it’s OK to be there for at least enough time to brew and drink the tea. In the early stages of a home visit a glass of water and a snack can put an otherwise nervous host at ease by reinforcing the role of host and guest as opposed to participant/researcher. Food and drink helps us overcome those little moments of awkwardness that can stifle the rest of the conversation. A lack of food or drink can feel like there is a void to be filled and makes it more difficult to break down social barriers.

Here in Afghanistan a number of participants have offered us (non-Muslim researchers) water and/or tea during the fast – and on all but one occasion, where the host was ultra-insistent we’ve politely declined – citing our respect of the fast, a decision that appears to be itself respected.

Participant & Team Dynamics

In countries where the heat of the day tops ~40 degrees celcius (~104 fahrenheit) don’t expect local participants or team members to exert much energy during the day – many will have been up since before dawn – for breakfast and/or to pray and will be conserving their energy for what will be a long day. My experience on this trip have been overwhelmingly postive, but there is a general perception that tempers are shorter during Ramadan. Try to avoid scheduling interviews that overlap with prayer times; and provide a clear indication how long an interview is likely to last. Some but not necessarily all household members may want to pray, and observance is likely to be higher at this time. Do assume however that both participants and team members will want to spend iftar – the evening breaking of the fast with their family.

Mazar e Sharif: shadow interviews

The time pressures of corporate field research tend to lean towards dynamic, high pressure situations, and this definitely needs to be recalibrated to local conditions.

Here in the crazy heat of Mazar e Sharif the non-Muslim team members have each carried a small bottle of water which has been sipped/chugged during small moments of solitude. Drinking water in front of team members who are abstaining is not great for morale. And don’t expect any restaurants other than those catering to non-locals to be serving food.

Not all Muslims will be fasting: for example it is not required where abstinence is likely to cause physical harm; on travel days; or simply through personal preference.

Here in Afghanistan where the Taliban are framing the conflict as a jihad Ramadan could increase or reduce the odds of being caught up on violence: on the one hand one might expect an uptick in Taliban attacks on non-believers; but on the other hand Ramadan is a time for self-restraint and good deeds.

Team Tactics

I’m a firm beliver that every challenge presents a unique opportunity: understanding the dynamics of the day makes its possible to explore different kinds of researcher/participant relationships: from the types of conversations that come from overnighting in the home and joining the family in a pre-dawn breakfast; to doubly-enjoying the shade of a truck with a group of resting labourers (photo above, from earlier today).

Given all this – is it worth shifting the study dates to avoid Ramadan? On the one hand Ramadan does make it tougher to conduct research and could be the reason why a novice team/novice team members are unable to perform to the level that is required. But on the other hand the inquisitive researcher that truly wants to understand the culture and context of their study participants will be missing an important piece of the puzzle. Just how important depends in part on the goals of the study. And to put it into perspective – how does experiencing Sangha, Oshogatsu, Passover, Christmas, Diwali, Nanakshahi or Ramadan shape an understanding of your own culture?