7 Feb

Geographical Review Preview: Researchers in the panopticon? Geographies of research, fieldwork and authoritarianism 

By: Filippo Menga

Article Title, Issue and Volume:
Researchers in the panopticon? Geographies of research, fieldwork and authoritarianism

What is the main purpose of your study?
To explore the lived experiences of researchers who conducted fieldwork in authoritarian settings, and understand the pervasiveness of authoritarian surveillance.

What are the practical, day to day, implications of your study?
This is an article about authoritarianism but also about researchers, for whom fieldwork is a key research activity. The article outlines the challenges posed by carrying out fieldwork in authoritarian settings, and suggests that starting a conversation about these issues can help researchers better prepare emotionally and strategically.

The article also posits that universities can use ethics checks and tailored training activities to better prepare researchers – particularly early career – for fieldwork, so that these administrative processes can start adapting to a continuously evolving and demanding higher education sector.

How does your study relate to other work on the subject?
The article builds on and expands the abundant geographical scholarship that discussed questions related to fieldwork and the positionality of researchers, while also engaging with studies that have critically interrogated the notion of authoritarianism. It does so, through a theoretical and empirical discussion of the ways in which outsiders are subject to diffuse topologies of power that are deployed in various contexts and at various scales.

What are two or three interesting findings that come from your study?
Many researchers who conducted fieldwork in authoritarian settings felt surveilled, and as a result disciplined themselves and normalized a number of self-policing behaviors and practices that can influence processes of knowledge production.

The article also found that early career researchers are particularly permeated by authoritarian surveillance, while also confirming that it is hard to define a place solely as authoritarian (or liberal) without becoming prone to simplistic generalizations.

What might be some of the theoretical implications of this study?
The article argues that authoritarianism as a political technology of power is ephemeral, spatially diffuse and unfolds at multiple scales. Drawing on Foucauldian theorizations about power, the article explains how the power triangle composed by sovereignty, discipline and security embeds a non-hierarchical topology of power, through which power emerges as a diffuse and relational arrangement. The article also explores the multiscalar relation between sovereign rule and disciplinary power, to develop a methodology aimed at understanding how individuals can become the target and vehicle of a diffuse power system.

How does your research help us think about Geography?
This study speaks to some key issues in human geography such as place, mobility, power, perception of the other and scale. Key questions raised by the paper include: how is our positionality influencing our perception of other places and people? And how can authoritarianism influence the mobility (and research choices) of researchers?

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Click here to read the abstract of this article.