By Pauline Zerla
Communities in the Central African Republic have experienced war for over a decade. Yet we rarely hear about the experiences through which they have lived. In 2020, Conciliation Resources produced a report entitled “Listening to young people associated with armed groups in north-western Central African Republic”. The report utilises a storytelling approach and offers unique insights into our understanding of the conflict. This approach has grown in popularity as a research method, as a policy tool and in everyday life. Similar efforts have now been undertaken in other conflict areas, including the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Africa.
Here, we discuss the potential of storytelling for research that engages with conflict-affected communities and ask: Why do stories strengthen conflict research? Story-based (or narrative) research to support conflict reduction and peacebuilding centres on using first-person experiences – expressed visually, in writing and orally – to go beyond a top-down examination of conflict dynamics and explore the lived experiences of war. It offers policymakers and practitioners an understanding of conflict from the eyes of those who experience it, which provides for richer research that better informs policymaking and programme design. Peacebuilding and development practitioners have long known that story-based approaches are impactful; they also know that the use of such approaches in conflict contexts requires precision, nuance and intention.
In peacebuilding, for example, storytelling interventions are used to create connections between groups and support youth development through activities such as participatory filmmaking or community theatre. In mental health and psychosocial support, virtual reality is utilised in contexts affected by violence, particularly with Syrian refugees in the Middle East. Two major factors help to explain this growth in the use of storytelling. First, the coronavirus pandemic has fostered digital storytelling as an avenue to create connections. In addition, virtual narrative methods have allowed researchers to carry out research remotely and in faraway places, overcoming travel restrictions that might otherwise limit fieldwork. Second, researchers and practitioners have increasingly recognised that the impact of peacebuilding work is enhanced when efforts are made to accommodate local realities. However, narrative approaches have been utilised more widely as a way to communicate findings rather than conducting research per se. As the increasing momentum indicates, such limited use misses out on the significant research potential that stories offer as a valid method to gather data.
At its centre, the movement towards greater focus on personal narratives and oral histories is founded on the recognition that stories contain a unique type of knowledge, particularly those from communities either living through protracted conflict or bearing witness long after violence has stopped. As narrative scholars know, history is itself a story, and the collection of multiple narratives allows for a more varied illustration of complex dynamics. An approach anchored in narrative exploration permits a richer perspective, the ability to see the world from the point of view of those researchers are trying to understand. ‘But what does narrative research entail?’
In South Sudan and the DRC, for example, the NGO Search for Common Ground used participatory methods to examine spaces of perceived safety and risk of gender-based violence for women and girls. Such studies help researchers to understand the everyday security challenges faced by women and girls and help practitioners to adapt programming to mitigate them. As such, these methods ultimately enrich research exploring the complex phenomenon that is human behaviour in war.
This involvement of local communities in research and programme evaluation is understood as a community-based participatory methodology. In peace and conflict research, it offers a flexible, participant-centred, illustrative methodology that contributes to meaning-making for those the research aims to understand. This approach argues that the direct participation of local communities in data collection and analysis strengthens peacebuilding interventions. The intersection of participatory research and narrative methods brings three distinct advantages.
First, stories provide contextual and nuanced data, bringing unique insights into conflict research, such as those encountered by disadvantaged young people or refugee women whose perspectives are otherwise often ignored. King’s College London’s Imaging Peace Project explores everyday narratives of peace in Rwanda through photography. The resulting visual narratives bring to light new understandings of peace. As such, these methodologies also complement other quantitative and qualitative research methods. By placing subjects of the research at the centre of the process, these methods engage individuals affected by conflict to tell their own stories and to focus on what they find most important. While some traditional methods are seen as extractive, narrative approaches invite us to consider participants’ agency and confront where power resides.
Second, histories challenge traditional understanding of war and favour the presentation of its complexity. In Lebanon, the NGO Fighters for Peace harnesses oral histories to explore experiences of war among ex-combatants. The stories gathered are shared with a wider audience through video, art exhibitions and theatre, bringing diverse narratives of war to the public debate. Here, oral history research allows for challenging common narratives of war. Engaging with narratives in conflict contexts permits the production of innovative research bringing novel findings on conflict and peace.
Third, a story-based method is well suited to research carried out with individuals who may have experienced trauma. Its flexibility, continued adaptation and narrative focus allow for illustrative discussion of traumatic events rather than direct questions surrounding difficult experiences. In an interview, the interviewee rather than the interviewer leads the process, focusing on certain experiences or stories more than others, avoiding the memories that may trigger them. In situations where oral recollection may be retraumatising, an interviewee can also use drawing or writing.
Even though story-based methods are valuable to, if not essential for, conflict research, they should be implemented with care. As with other methods, ethical questions surround the utilisation of story-based research methodologies, particularly when engaging with vulnerable and conflict-affected populations. A central debate revolves around whose stories we are telling and what happens to those stories. It questions who will benefit from gathered stories and what aims will be served. Initiatives to address these questions have included, for example, sharing research findings with participants and ensuring that history collection is implemented as centring on participant experiences, making research an empowering practice. Participatory approaches and mixed methods designs are also offered as meaningful avenues in this space.
In addition, it is essential to consider concerns around trauma awareness and retraumatisation. Specifically, researchers need to address the potentially harmful impacts of retelling and remembering traumatic events. Where risks have been identified, trauma-informed adaptation of the methodology is required. Although evidence is scarce, best practices – such as ensuring conversational ownership by the interviewee, intentional selection of space to conduct research (and ensure the interviewee’s safety) and offering alternative narrative tools (such as theatre, art and media) – have proven helpful. Ultimately, care and intention are paramount.
Conversely, a focus on local histories can also help researchers to address some of the ethical and methodological challenges brought by engaging with vulnerable and conflict-affected populations. Done well, narrative research allows researchers in-depth study of complex issues, a focus on representation and diversity in data collection and a better understanding of the contexts they study. An approach anchored in community participation specifically supports this endeavour. Therefore, the careful implementation that narrative methods require should not deter researchers from utilising them in both research and interventions in conflict. On the contrary, these methods open a space to address delicate questions in partnership with those the research is about. Narrative methods applied with a participatory lens should continue to enrich our understanding of conflict and provide valuable insights for policy and practice.
 In the humanities they are known as oral histories or storytelling while in the social sciences a narrative research framing is often preferred.
This publication was produced as part of the XCEPT programme, a programme funded by UK Aid from the UK government. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK government’s official policies.