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Everyday Resistance

Raksha Vasudevan

3. Methodology and Limitations of Data Collection

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  • 1 16 women were interviewed individually using semi-structured interview methods, and 49 participated (...)
  • 2  The terms “Northern Province” and the “the north” are used interchangeably in this ePaper. The Nor (...)

1This ePaper combines a desk-based review of existing literature and field-based, semi-structured interviews with 65 FHHs1 across 10 villages and towns in the Northern Province2. It also includes interviews with several women’s rights activists, NGO workers and academics working in Sri Lanka. The fieldwork also attempted to solicit comments from participants focusing on identifying how state-led interventions shaped FHHs’ daily lives and mindsets. Special attention was paid to patterns based on ethnicity, age, religion, location of villages, NGO presence and other available economic opportunities. It does not aim to be comprehensive or representative of all FHHs’ experiences and needs in the north – rather, it tries to highlight the diversity of their situations and response strategies.

  • 3 The ethical and research implications of working through these channels are discussed further on.

2Fieldwork was carried out over a period of one month from late March to late April 2012, and was largely facilitated by human rights activists, religious leaders and NGO workers in the country3 – hereafter collectively referred to as “the facilitators”. They helped to select the fieldwork sites and the participants at each site, and also served as translators when necessary. Given that the researcher had a good understanding of Tamil, translation assistance was provided as needed for clarification purposes.

  • 4  The lack of accurate, up-to-date statistics made it challenging to ascertain the proportion of FHH (...)
  • 5  In some cases, facilitators believed that even if the researcher’s presence was discovered, they h (...)

3Research was carried out in 10 locations in the Northern Province where the proportion of households headed by females was thought to be high (i.e., 20% or higher)4. Another key factor in selecting the fieldwork sites concerned the willingness of facilitators to link the researcher with FHHs who would participate in the research. Their willingness to do so was usually dependent on the extent of the army’s presence in a particular area, the probability of the research coming to the attention of state forces, and the severity of potential consequences in the event that were to happen5. Out of the five administrative districts in the Northern Province (see Figure 1 below), fieldwork was undertaken in four (Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Vavuniya).

Figure 1: Administrative districts of the Northern Province

Figure 1: Administrative districts of the Northern Province

Source: National Water Supply and Drainage Board, Sri Lanka. Accessible at​scripts/​asp/​north.asp

4Within the villages chosen for fieldwork, the goal was not to be exhaustive (i.e., not to interview all FHHs present), but rather to document the most pervasive challenges that these women faced, identify the sources of their vulnerabilities and insecurities, and the various ways in which they responded and negotiated their positions within such contexts.

  • 6 This comes close to the approach of political ethnography, which draws on ethnographic methods focu (...)

5Thus, without attempting a full-scale ethnographic study, several methods and research principles from the anthropological discipline were employed. This approach was intended to privilege and uncover the local knowledge held by “ordinary” women, rather than presupposing their intentions and behaviours.6 Korf (2004) asserts that such methods are particularly appropriate for understanding the processes which determine people's vulnerabilities and response strategies under conditions of conflict. Such an approach was also particularly suitable given the focus on a group which is thought to have been historically marginalized by the state: as Das and Poole state, “anthropology offers an ideal point of departure for the radical rethinking of the state that a view from the margins requires. Anthropology is frequently configured as a discipline that speaks for (or at times with) those populations that have been marginalized” (2004, 4).

3.1 Ethical considerations in designing the research

6Fieldwork in potentially dangerous settings can offer several rewards, perhaps most important of which is the collection of politically potent and rich data that could not have been collected through other means (Nilan 2002). However, it also comes with significant drawbacks, including physical risk to the lives of the researcher and respondents, logistical difficulties in accessing people and places, as well as data that is inaccurate, misleading and/or difficult to verify specifically as a result of lack of access and an unpredictable environment.

7For these reasons, many academics (cf. Turton 1996) argue that research in such settings is only justified if the potential benefits arising from the work (i.e., the collected data) offer the potential to reduce the suffering of the subjects of research. It is hoped that two key benefits for FHHs will result from this ePaper: 1) increased awareness of the main hardships experienced by FHHs, resulting both in aid that is better targeted and in political pressure to reduce the sources of their vulnerabilities; and 2) a deconstruction of the narratives of Tamil women in general, and FHHs in particular, as “helpless victims” or “tough warriors”, both of which limit the socio-politico-economic spaces these women are “allowed” by society to occupy, thus undermining their daily survival and delegitimising their resilience.

  • 7  Jacobsen and Landau focus on researchers working on the issue of forced migration, but the methodo (...)

8Jacobsen and Landau also stress the need for social scientists undertaking fieldwork in humanitarian situations7 to continiously maintain high academic and ethical standards, while avoiding the tendency to engage in “advocacy research” whereby “researchers already know what they want to see and say, and come away from the research having ‘proved’ it” (2003, 187). They suggest that one way to mitigate against such “ethical traps” is to fully disclose the methodology which was used, including possible biases and the ethical dilemmas encountered in designing and executing it, which is what this section attempts to do.  

9At the time of research, there were neither official restrictions nor guidelines on conducting qualitative research in the country. However, it was common knowledge that research on “sensitive” matters such as those related to national security, governance, the challenges facing the Tamil population, or any work that could be seen as critical of the government’s actions towards the Tamil minority would not be permitted. Given the current government's history of brutally curtailing journalistic freedom – including through disappearances and assassinations of journalists8, and particularly in cases of reporting seen as sympathetic to the Tamil side –it was dangerous to carry out fieldwork for this ePaper, which clearly touched on highly political themes and issues. The fieldwork had to be done “under cover” – that is, without notifying the government/military or seeking their authorization to conduct research, and avoiding detection by these forces as the research was conducted.

3.1.1 Do no harm

10The researcher’s active presence in a “dangerous” fieldwork site may generate several risks. In this particular case, were the researcher’s presence (and intentions) to be discovered by a state institution, this would have posed a serious security threat for the researcher herself, as well as facilitators, respondents and others involved directly or indirectly in the research. The reseracher’s presence also presented the problem of “reactivity,’ whereby respondents modify their behaviour as a reaction to the presence of an outsider, potentially aggravating existing tensions and insecurities exisiting within communities.

11The “do no harm” principle was therefore followed to the maximum extent possible. Fundamentally, this principle implies that research can and should be terminated if conditions appear to be getting too threatening, either to participants or to the researcher. In a less extreme situation, it would mean that certain respondents, villages, questions or methods of data collection should be modified or avoided altogether when it becomes necessary to do.  

12To determine if and when such actions need to be taken, Kovats-Bernat (2002) suggests that researchers should apply a localized ethic. He describes his own experience in applying such a protocol during his field research in Haiti: “I took stock of the good advice and recommendations of the local population in deciding what conversations (and silences) were important, what information was too costly to life and limb to get to, the amount of exposure to violence considered acceptable, the questions that were dangerous to ask, and the patterns of behaviour that are important to follow for the safety and security of myself and those around me” (2002,  214). An attempt to operationalize such a localized ethicwas made throughout the course of this researcher’s fieldwork, and relied especially on the guidance of local facilitators.

Anonymity and informed consent

  • 9  It should be noted that in focus group discussions, it is difficult for the researcher to “guarant (...)

13Another cornerstone of the “do no harm” approach to fieldwork concerns ensuring confidentiality and the anonymity of all research participants. To this end, interviewees were assured that their identity would be kept strictly confidential – that is, they would never be identified to anyone else, verbally or in writing, as having participated in the research, and particular statements would not be attributed to them.9 In any published work, they would only be identified by certain socio-demographic characteristics (e.g., age, number of family members lost, livelihood activities) in order to provide some minimum level of context, but always in a manner too general to allow for the identification of a particular individual or household. Real names or locations would never be revealed.

14Respondents were also informed that they could, at any time, completely refuse to participate in the research, or decline to answer particular questions in interviews. At any point during an interview, they could withdraw from further participation in the process. In the event that an interviewee wanted to withdraw permission to use information previously disclosed in discussions with the researcher, they were informed that they could contact the local facilitator who had invited them to participate in the research to arrange this. The researcher requested permission to take audio recordings of interviews, but if the respondent refused, then only written notes were taken. At any time, interviewees could contact the local facilitator to pass on concerns or questions about the research and their participation in it.

15Only once the above conditions had been communicated and discussed with potential interviewees, and their agreement to participate in the research had been secured, were interviews carried out. Obtaining consent that is truly “informed” is especially important in studies like this one where the risk of “re-traumatization” is present. For instance, Wood (2006), for her ethnographic field research in El Salvador during the civil war, used a similar consent protocol and believed that such terms and conditions - by handing a degree of control and responsibility over interview content to respondents – may have helped prevent re-traumatization as a result of recounting violence suffered and grief experienced.

16Another important element of obtaining informed consent concerns ensuring that participants are fully aware of the risks and potential benefits that accompany their involvement in the research. The only benefit that was offered was the opportunity to contribute to a written account of the struggles facing interviewees, and their responses to them. Care was taken not to create expectations that their situations would change as a result of participating in the research, or that they would gain access to financial or other resources.

17On the other hand, the potential risks of participants’ involvement in the research were significant, and could have included suspicion, harassment, stigma (for talking to an “outsider”), reprisals, physical violence or other forms of retaliation by the army, other government agents, neighbours, or kin. In such a politically charged setting, other risks to potential participants that were difficult to foresee may have also existed. It is the researcher’s responsibility to try and inform respondents as fully as possible on the potential risks they would be taking by participating in the research. However, it is often the case in violent or post-conflict settings that informants are more knowledgeable than the researcher regarding the potential consequences they might face from participating in the research (Kovats-Bernat 2002).

3.1.2 Data security

18Ensuring the security of data, especially when going through checkpoints or being subject to “random” questioning by the military, was a concern during fieldwork. To safeguard against this risk, names of participants were not recorded or written in field notes. These notes were regularly typed up and transferred to a password-protected laptop, where they were then encrypted and sent “home” by email as often as internet access was available.

3.1.3 Validity and reliability of data collected

  • 10  As stated earlier, this ePaper does not aim to be comprehensive or representative of all FHHs’ exp (...)

19A significant limitation concerning the validity and reliability of the data collected during fieldwork stems from the politicisation and poor quality of descriptive statistics available for the region in question. Due to lack of alternatives, such statistics were used in choosing fieldwork sites and participants from each site with the goal of making the information collected as representative of the different situations of FHHs in the north as possible.10 As Muggah states, “though the country boasts a credible national surveillance infrastructure in relation to monitoring population health and socio-economic well-being, statistics on sensitive topics such as displacement and resettlement are frequently restricted, selective and of dubious quality” (2010, 7). For example, the government recently released an “Enumeration of Vital Events” survey for the Northern Province which was jointly conducted by the military and the Department of Census and Statistics. The survey indicated that in the north, approximately 7,000 people died from fighting and 2,635 went missing in the last five months of the war. These numbers stand in sharp contrast to those of the UN Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts which asserts that “tens of thousands” (2011, iii) died in the final months of the war, most of them in the north.

  • 11  Ministry of Defence and Urban Development, Sri Lanka today is one of the most secure and stable c (...)

20Furthermore, the survey has been used by government officials to de-credit accusations of killings of innocent civilians by the armed forces. Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa has claimed that “as a result of the census, we already know that the real number of dead and missing is far too small to provide any substance to the absurd allegations of genocide and war crimes that have been made against our military by the rump LTTE and their cronies”.11 To avoid relying too heavily on inaccurate data, information was triangulated with as many other sources as possible (e.g., facilitators’ knowledge, existing research by academics and NGOs).

21If and when potential interviewees who were introduced/invited by the facilitators agreed to participate in the research, one or more of several factors may have skewed their responses: for instance, their fear of retribution from the state/army, fear of reprisals from other parties (e.g., neighbours, families), and/or a desire to gain access to financial or other forms of assistance. For the latter reason, it was expected that participants would have an interest in exaggerating the number and intensity of the vulnerabilities they faced, and diminish the agency of their own responses. It was also expected that some subjects, such as sexual abuse or other violence, may have been too sensitive for respondents to discuss openly. The validity of the data collected from interviews and focus groups is diminished by all of these factors.

22To address these concerns, interview topics and the interview guide were verified by facilitators to ensure that all questions were appropriately phrased and sensitive issues which might have been dangerous or taboo for respondents to discuss were not raised directly. Field notes were taken and subsequent analysis of interview data was conducted bearing in mind that “narratives of violence, even those filled with inaccuracies, fictions, and lies, can embody all sorts of truths – emotional, psychological, and moral. These truths are as crucial to researchers’ analyses of past violence and prospects for future peace as any ‘fact-based’ reports” (Fujji 2010, 235). Thus, information that was thought (either by the researcher or the facilitators) to be incomplete, exaggerated or misleading was not necessarily dismissed as “useless” data. Rather, it was used to provide insight as to the informant's state of mind or as to motivations other than those they explicitly revealed. Rumors, inventions, denials, evasions, and silences during interviews can be as important as “real” data in settings characterized by large-scale violence (Fujii 2010). For example, in her study of Mayan widows in rural Guatemala in the late 1980s, Green (1995) found that women were open to discussing their painful pasts, but maintained a steadfast silence about the present, which she then hypothesized as constituting a survival strategy.

23Similarly, another concern in terms of validity arises when using participants’ responses to evaluate the effects of state-led interventions. Respondents did not necessarily frame their narratives in relation to particular policies or actions by the government. Rather, what usually emerged from interviews and from discussions with respondents was similar to what Muggah characterizes as “a messy sequence of events explicitly informed by their lived experiences” (2008, 8). Consequently, making a causal linkage between the vulnerabilities which FHHs faced and specific state-led measures is problematic. Furthermore, in such a study, no “control” group or counterfactual exists for comparison in assessing the extent to which state-driven factors cause specific vulnerabilities (and produce certain types of response strategies), or whether these are the result of other social, political or economic elements. Attempts to counteract this were made by testing the analysis and findings in a previous draft of this ePaper with experts on the topics at hand, and drawing heavily on existing research on the effects of state actions on vulnerable populations in post-war contexts. Nevertheless, the problems encountered in establishing causation between state measures and specific vulnerabilities constitute a limitation of this study.

  • 12  Cf. Weiss 2011 or IRIN news, “SRI LANKA: Indian boost for IDP housing”, March 15, 2012. http://www (...)

24Mistrust over the researcher’s identity and intentions may also have influenced the reliability of data collected. The researcher is an academic who is simultaneously perceived as being both “foreign” (of Indian origin but with Canadian citizenship) and “local” (Tamil-speaking). My Indian origins were particularly problematic as India's involvement in Sri Lankan domestic politics is a controversial subject amongst Sri Lankan Tamils,12 and my status as an independent researcher with no ties to either the Indian or Sri Lankan government was not always accepted. Talking to an Indian researcher – or any foreigner, for that matter – at the time in which the research was carried out was also seen as dangerous, due to India’s then-recent backing of the Geneva Human Rights Council resolution in March 2012, which was massively opposed by the Sri Lankan government.

25As Fujii explains:

not only are researchers studying their informants, their informants, in turn, are studying them back – to figure out who the researcher is and whether the researcher is a source of potential threat […] How informants identify researchers can determine the amount or level of access the researcher can gain. If people suspect that researchers are state agents, informants may invoke a party line in interviews and conversations rather than reveal their deeper thoughts. The task of the researcher is to take people’s fears and suspicions seriously and try to allay them as much as possible. (2010, 233)

26My ability to speak an intermediate level of Tamil was expected to help build rapport with respondents, and most of all, my introduction to participants through local facilitators was presumed to help create a basic level of trust.

27Of course, as discussed earlier, my association with these facilitators came with its own set of problems: to a certain extent, it compromised my independence as a researcher, and restricted how, when, where and with whom I interacted. Recognizing this source of potential bias, there was little that could be done to counteract it, as the high levels of potential violence against anyone seen to be working “against the state” made affiliations with local institutions critical for both security and access purposes.

28Another limitation of the research was the short time period available for fieldwork (approximately one month). This prevented repeat visits to fieldwork sites and limited opportunities to build trust with respondents over time, thus affecting the reliability of data collected. However, due to the security restrictions which made it dangerous to stay in one place for more than a few days at a time, as well as time and funding limitations, this could not realistically be avoided.

29The next chapter provides some background information on the Sri Lankan civil war and the current post-war environment in order to better understand the circumstances in which FHHs in the north find themselves. The gendered narratives about Tamil women in general, and FHHs specifically, which have emerged during the course of the war will be discussed and the reasons for which FHHs are thought to be especially vulnerable will be outlined. An overview of state-led “reconstruction” efforts – which appear to be geared more towards attaining security objectives, rather than towards development – will also be provided to complete the contextual picture before we begin addressing the research questions.


1 16 women were interviewed individually using semi-structured interview methods, and 49 participated in group discussions.

2  The terms “Northern Province” and the “the north” are used interchangeably in this ePaper. The Northern Province is the geographical focus of this ePaper; however, other scholars and many Sri Lankans themselves consider “the north” to also include the North Western, North Central and parts of the Eastern province. Administrative boundaries have been highly contested in Sri Lanka’s political history, with the most recent example of the “demerger” of the former “North-East” province into the Northern and Eastern provinces in 2007, allegedly to avoid giving further political influence to Tamils (while the North is majority Tamil, the East remains fragmented between Tamils, Sinhala and Muslims (who consider themselves and are considered to be a distinct ethnic group)).

3 The ethical and research implications of working through these channels are discussed further on.

4  The lack of accurate, up-to-date statistics made it challenging to ascertain the proportion of FHHs in any given area. The knowledge of facilitators was heavily relied upon to identify fieldwork sites where this proportion was high, and where possible and reasonable to do so, triangulated with “official” statistics from the government or the UN.

5  In some cases, facilitators believed that even if the researcher’s presence was discovered, they had sufficiently good relationships with the local police/military to diffuse any potential negative consequences.  

6 This comes close to the approach of political ethnography, which draws on ethnographic methods focusing on documenting and understanding daily life in a given area in order to analyse state power and political processes which transcend that area (Thomson 2010).

7  Jacobsen and Landau focus on researchers working on the issue of forced migration, but the methodological and ethical problems they discuss are applicable to all academics doing fieldwork in humanitarian settings.

8  See section 2.2.2 Gender and security in post-war situations.

9  It should be noted that in focus group discussions, it is difficult for the researcher to “guarantee” confidentiality, as she/he has little control over how other participants choose to use the information discussed in the group.  This presented a significant risk, especially in contexts where “informants” were thought to exist in the local communities. However, as stated earlier, local populations often understand better than a “foreign” researcher the risks inherent in sharing information in such settings. This assumption, together with the guidance of local facilitators in selecting focus group participants who were less likely to spread information, led to the use of focus groups as part of this research  despite the possible attendant risks.

10  As stated earlier, this ePaper does not aim to be comprehensive or representative of all FHHs’ experiences or needs in the north – rather, it is intended to highlight the diversity of their stories, vulnerabilities and coping strategies. Added to this is that fact that the lack of available, accurate statistics made it virtually impossible to compile a clear sampling frame. The “real” size and distribution of FHHs in the north is still unknown.

11  Ministry of Defence and Urban Development, Sri Lanka today is one of the most secure and stable countries in the entire world-Secretary Defence”, November 25, 2011. (accessed July 3, 2012).

12  Cf. Weiss 2011 or IRIN news, “SRI LANKA: Indian boost for IDP housing”, March 15, 2012. (accessed June 9, 2012a).

Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: Administrative districts of the Northern Province
Crédits Source: National Water Supply and Drainage Board, Sri Lanka. Accessible at​scripts/​asp/​north.asp
Fichier image/png, 134k


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