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The Social Science Research Council’s African Peacebuilding Network (APN) and the Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa (Next Gen) programs had their first virtually held joint fellows workshop from August 31st, 2020 to September 3rd, 2020. Before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic that has affected all parts of the world, the joint workshop was originally scheduled to be held in Kampala, Uganda in collaboration with Makerere University.
18 APN Individual Research fellows and 35 Next Gen Proposal Development, Dissertation Research, and Dissertation Completion fellows participated in the workshop, whose activities included lectures, working group sessions, and one-on-one mentoring sessions led by experienced scholars, professors, and current and former APN and Next Gen Advisory Board members. During the small working group sessions, fellows presented and received constructive feedback and comments on their research proposals, updates, workshop assignments, and dissertation chapters from their peers and facilitators/mentors. The workshop also provided an opportunity for APN and Next Gen fellows to learn more about each other’s research, interact with highly experienced scholars and facilitators, and engage in interactive activities aimed at expanding their knowledge on coping with the challenges of conducting research during a pandemic, as well as interdisciplinary perspectives to peacebuilding, security, and development in Africa.
The opening session of day 1 of the workshop featured welcome remarks by Cyril Obi, Program Director of APN and Next Gen. He spoke about the Covid-19 pandemic had changed the nature and scope of research and how this would require the use of new tools and techniques, including digital technologies. Duncan Omanga, Program Officer of APN and Next Gen also gave welcome remarks and introduced the APN and Next Gen Advisory Board Chairs, Prof. Rita Abrahamsen and Prof. Sarah Ssali, workshop facilitators, and the APN and Next Gen fellows.
The first keynote lecture, titled, “Making up African Worlds – How to avoid being fooled by concepts,” was delivered by Professor Elisio Macamo from the University of Basel. He identified the key challenge in the pursuit of social science in Africa to be how to actually produce knowledge, cautioning against being “fooled by concepts.” He also introduced fellows to three concepts pertaining to explanation: worlds implied by social science vocabulary, the challenge of description, and relationship between concept and reality. Furthermore, Professor Macamo emphasized that a lot of the things that we can learn from in Africa can help render Africa intelligible by Africans, and by interrogating assumptions and received knowledge. He then underlined the critical importance of the agency of the African researcher in possessing the power to conceptualize and theorize Africa’s reality and contribute towards improving the social sciences universally.
The second day of the workshop began with an interactive session Professor Morten Boas of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI), Oslo. The session was based on the video of his keynote lecture, titled, “Fieldwork in Violent and Dangerous Places: Do’s, Don’ts, and the Question Marks,” which fellows had watched in advance. At the beginning of the discussion, Professor Boas spoke about how researchers and scholars have to acknowledge that they make mistakes and get confused during fieldwork, and shouldn’t be afraid to talk about such failures, and learn from them. He pointed to the need to reflect more on practices in the field or “social landscape,” particularly issues around ethics, and risks as they affect members of research teams, and respondents. Prof. Boas also explored the need to interrogate the unequal international research partnerships, and what to do to ameliorate such structural imbalances that often adversely affect African researchers/partners. During the Q & A portion of the discussion, many fellows pointed to the importance of interrogating the concept of “dangerous places” and asked about the implications of using such terms to describe certain conflict-affected spaces.
On day 3, fellows were mainly in their small working group sessions, and one-on-one sessions with their mentors. The fourth and last day of the workshop consisted of more working group sessions and one-on-one sessions and ended with a joint APN-Next Gen panel discussion, titled, “Doing Research in Time of Covid-19: Risks, Innovation, and Adaptation.” The following panelists, Steve Akoth, Lydia Amoah, Amy Niang, and Tapiwa Madimu, spoke to their own personal experiences with conducting research during the pandemic and shared insights on how they had responded to emerging challenges, including what scholars need to keep in mind about revising research plans and deciding on when to head out into the field to collect data. Lydia Amoah, a Next Gen fellow, narrated how she had to postpone data collection for her project to 2021 because of safety precautions. Amy Niang, an APN advisory board member (and former fellow,) emphasized the need to understand that Covid-19 affects everyone and that some of the most affected scholars will be those going into the field to gather information/data. Tapiwa Madimu, an APN fellow, spoke about the problem of accessing research materials since public archives had been closed due to the pandemic, noting also how research had been impacted by the difficulty of accessing digitized archive materials. In his presentation, Steve Akoth (Next Gen advisory board member (and former fellow) advised that scholars and researchers need to have more empathy for the people they want to take part in their research because they are also dealing with their own circumstances in relation to the pandemic.
The four-day virtual workshop ended with closing remarks from Program Director Cyril Obi, Rita Abrahamsen (Chair of the APN Advisory Board), Sarah Ssali (Chair of the Next Gen Advisory Board), and Program Officer Duncan Omanga.