Julian, could you first tell us what your research at the EUI is about?
My research focuses on the concept of citizenship. I am investigating how citizens feel about their sense of belonging to the state, the way they perceive their rights and obligations towards the state, and how the relationship between citizens, politicians, and state evolves over time. I investigate those issues using mixed methods – mostly survey experiments, observational data analysis, and interviews. I believe that doing fieldwork is very important for social science researchers interested in contemporary topics as nothing can replace the on-the-ground perspective one gains by going to the places you are working on.
Why did you choose Lebanon as your case study?
Lebanon is an excellent case for doing research on the notion of citizenship. The country has experienced major internal and external issues, among others corruption, invasions, civil wars, and severe economic crises, which has led to major social divisions and distrust among citizens. Despite all this, my research shows a strong sense of belonging of the Lebanese people to their state, and to democracy. This is surprising, as the Lebanese state has not been able to give to its citizens what a performing state should provide. Moreover, I chose to focus on Lebanon as I have a strong personal connection with the country. I did an exchange at the American University of Beirut during my undergraduate degree studies and then I did fieldwork there for my Masters. Since then, I have developed a strong emotional bond with Lebanon and the Lebanese people. I believe that researchers should study countries or topics that they love.
Could you tell us about your fieldwork experiences in Lebanon?
Thanks to the EUI, I did fieldwork in Lebanon three times since I started my PhD at the Institute in 2020. I can say that going to Beirut is almost like going home for me. As I have a good network there, I usually stay in Lebanon for one month at a time. However, for new researchers who are not yet acquainted with the places they are studying, I would suggest a longer experience, if possible.
In every round of fieldwork in Lebanon, I focused on a different angle of my project. In the first round, which was in 2021, I worked on the potential of participatory processes and deliberative democracy by setting up a survey experiment. My second visit, in 2022, was for observing the elections, which were very interesting due to the attempts of new political movements, coming out of the 2019 popular protests, to enter formal politics. Finally, my August 2023 fieldwork focused fundamentally on setting up a study on the political and social effects of crisis-driven out-migration. I consider all these experiences of fieldwork as different small pieces of the same big puzzle of researching on citizenship in this part of the world.
Could you elaborate more on the fieldwork you did this year?
Lebanon is a country with a strong diasporic tradition. Whenever there is a crisis, people migrate in large numbers. Following the series of crises that started in 2019, we are now observing a new wave of mass migration from all sectors of society. Together with my co-author Christiana Parreira, we believe that social sciences often focus on studying the impact of immigration on receiving countries – which is, of course, an important topic. However, we believe that often too little attention is given to the consequences of out-migration/emigration on the countries and societies of departure. Hence, we study the political, social, and psychological consequences of different types of experiences of migration – having left home or preparing to do so, having friends or family leave, etcetera. To enrich our investigation, I talked to and interviewed all kinds of people during my fieldwork: parliamentarians and political office holders, NGO-workers, activists, researchers, journalists, and everyday citizens.
I believe that it is very important to explain the research one is doing to the communities involved, and to improve the research by taking local voices seriously. In my opinion, the worst thing that a researcher can do is to choose a place to study using pre-defined ways, go there to “extract” the information needed, and leave immediately. The proper way to do fieldwork is to be transparent about the work you are doing, and to really involve the people and organisations you are working with in your research. Good social science research is not extraction, it is teamwork, and co-creation between the investigator and the research subject. In this way, I believe, you can make sure that everyone knows what they are helping to achieve, and that everyone concerned feels heard. If done in this way, fieldwork can also be an emotionally rewarding experience.
What did your fieldwork teach you that may be of use to researchers planning to conduct fieldwork in their studies?
I have four general takeaways from fieldwork.
First, whenever you can do fieldwork, do it. It often happened to me that while I went to Lebanon with specific things in mind, events happening around me changed and fundamentally enriched my perspective on the questions I am investigating.
Second, always show respect and kindness. While this should obviously apply to all aspects of life, it is even more important for a researcher doing fieldwork – specifically when working in places where the economic and security situations are less favourable than at home. Showing respect is a key element of fieldwork. Without it, you will not get anywhere, and nothing you find out will be of value.
Third, be humble about your work. Our role as researchers is to investigate topics of importance, to collect and analyse data, to then present solid arguments. However, we must be humble and realize that we only tell one part of the story.
Fourth, curiosity is an important personality trait for a researcher. However, what is sometimes even more essential is to realise when you should not be curious, because the situation does not allow it.
Has being an EUI researcher facilitated your experiences of fieldwork? What do you believe is the added value of being a PhD researcher at the EUI?
I feel that the EUI actively encourages researchers to do fieldwork and recognises the importance of this type of experience – this is something that I really appreciate. The EUI also offers some funding to researchers to go on fieldwork, which helps specifically in the early stages of projects.
In general, EUI researchers have plenty of time to focus on their research endeavours, as there are no teaching obligations at the Institute, and relatively manageable coursework. Moreover, the EUI is a very flexible environment – and good research needs flexibility, needs to be responsive to changes on the ground.
That said, the Institute encourages its researchers to present their work not only at academic conferences, but also to share their research results directly with stakeholders. For example, I had the honour to present the preliminary results of my survey on deliberative democracy in Lebanon at an OECD sponsored conference organised at the Lebanese Ministry of Administrative Reform.
Finally, another added value of the EUI is that, within the EUI community – which is rather small – there is a lot of diversity of interests and methods. This combination of a small community with a wide horizon creates a lot of unexpected interactions and synergies among researchers and professors from different perspectives. These interactions, both at a personal and at an academic level, greatly enrich our experience as researchers.
Julian Vierlinger is an Austrian researcher at the EUI Department of Political and Social Sciences (SPS). Julian’s thesis topic is “Crises, Upheavals, and Democratic Innovation: Essays on political change in Lebanon”. Julian is involved in numerous initiatives within the EUI, among others the Middle East Direction Programme Working Group. He is also a researcher representative.
Learn more about how to apply for the EUI Doctoral Programme in Political and Social Sciences.