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Humanitarianism, activism, and the impact of policy

Throughout her PhD Rana B. Khoury has primarily focused on the civilian activism ongoing in the Syrian Civil War. Khoury’s research interests extend beyond the Middle East, however, circling back to her roots as an Ohio native who worked on Capitol Hill as an undergraduate student. While the scope of Khoury’s interests initially appears broad, an underlying theme of her research is the link between major economic and social events and understanding the impact of the event(s) on the average person. In this interview, Khoury discusses her methodologies, research, and her future as a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University this upcoming fall. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Question: Your dissertation explains the relationship between international aid and civilian activism across the Syrian warscape. Could you tell me a little bit more about your dissertation, how it's coming together and what it's about?

Rana B. Khoury: When I went to Jordan for my first research trip after my first year in the Ph.D. program, I found the political engagement of at least some of the Syrians didn't match what I had read in the literature. The literature gave a picture of refugees who were either victims and helplessly dependent on humanitarian aid or potential security threats. Instead, I found that a lot of Syrians were nonviolently engaging in things like humanitarianism, journalism, some sort of continued human rights activism, or even working in government institutions that were popping up in rebel-held territory inside Syria. I explored this nonviolent engagement of Syrian activists in fields like rebel governance, emergency relief, and fundraising to help other refugees obtain housing.

As I explored this community further, I increasingly saw a link between the actions of these Syrians in refuge and in rebel-held territory, and international aid in terms of humanitarianism, development, more political aid, like stabilization. Once I made that connection, I really focused on those processes. My interviewees expanded from Syrians to international aid workers in Jordan and Turkey, as well. As a result, in my dissertation, I argue that there are specific connections to how international aid has mobilized activism, but has also changed the nature of that activism. For instance, activism has been formalized: NGOs have emerged out of what was initially a protest movement — and international aid has potentially contributed to the fragmentation of that movement as well.

Q: In 2019 you published, “Hard-to-Survey Populations and Respondent-Driven Sampling: Expanding the Political Science Toolbox.” The article suggests respondent-driven sampling can help researchers generate knowledge about populations like refugees who are difficult to survey. Could you explain respondent-driven sampling? And why has RDS gone “largely unknown or misused” in the field of political science, as you write?

RK: My fieldwork was primarily interview-based, which is what we refer to as qualitative data. Qualitative data is so integral to my work, but recognizing that different data collection methods can shed light on these topics in different ways, I had always wanted to do some quantitative work as well. I happened to be taking a human rights statistics course in Northwestern's statistics department when I came across the methodology of respondent driven sampling. It's used primarily in the field of epidemiology to study “hard-to-reach” populations at high risk for HIV infection. So I thought, why not use it in political science? Every discipline has its boundaries — justified or not — and while political science does draw on other disciplines, the tendency is to look to economics and psychology. As a scholar, you tend to have blinders on when you're operating in a given discipline, so you don't necessarily see all the work being done in other disciplines just because it isn’t on your radar.

Respondent driven sampling is, in short, a method that builds on this intuitive snowball sampling which is really common for a lot of survey research that uses nonprobability methods. The idea behind snowball sampling is that you start with a few connections and you hope that those connections connect you to others and so on. RDS makes snowball sampling a little more systematic and structured in terms of who can recruit who into the project. This method gives us a sense of how likely somebody is to be connected into that snowball. RDS aims to approximate probability sampling by asking people the size of their network, so if somebody reports that their network of other Syrian activists is really large, then that means they have more chances of coming into the survey. Thus,we actually reduce their weight in the analysis. Whereas, if somebody reports that they only know a couple other activists, it means that their likelihood of coming into the survey was pretty low, which increases their weight in the analysis.

Q: In 2016, you published the book “As Ohio Goes: Life in the Post-Recession Nation,” which strays from your other work in comparative politics and Middle East politics, and ventures into American politics. What inspired you to write this book and how did it come about?

RK: I've always been interested in US politics and as an undergraduate student studying political science at American University, I interned on Capitol Hill for a year and a half and I volunteered for an Ohio Governor's campaign. Coming out of my master's program at Georgetown, I had spent six years in Washington, D.C. and I really felt like people in the D.C. area were pretty clueless and also a little bit condescending towards the experience of people outside of D.C. Politicians would always talk about the middle class, but I wanted to really try to get a sense of what that means, especially after having witnessed the Great Recession — the most significant economic downturn since the Great Depression — and to better understand how that impacted the average American. I grew up in Ohio, so it was a homecoming for me. I thought, at first, that the book would serve as an oral history of the Great Recession, but my interviewees very quickly made it clear to me that you have to start earlier than that. Deindustrialization has been affecting people for decades in the state. With declining standards of living and the growing income inequality, it all was really connected to these longer-run processes that I argue in the book are really connected to the decisions and the neglect of policymakers in D.C.

The connection that I see between it and my research on Syria is that I'm really interested in big events and how people adapt to them. So, you can see how a massive economic downturn and the outbreak of a civil war are those kinds of big events and I want to understand just how the average person makes do and how they might transform into more active and engaged participants in political society. In addition, I want to understand how the policymakers and decision-makers — be it the policymakers in DC or the international humanitarian system — are affecting those everyday strategies.

Q: Next year, you will be a postdoctoral fellow at the Niehaus Center for Globalization and Governance at Princeton University. What will that role entail?

RK:  I am really looking forward to the postdoc. I was actually supposed to be there this year but they were very gracious in offering deferrals for people who didn't want to do it remotely. During the pandemic, I've been dealing with childcare, an issue that has affected so many working mothers, so I will be going to Princeton in the fall, where I have the opportunity to focus on my research. This opportunity will hopefully result in me turning this dissertation into something more like a book manuscript, as well as building on some projects that I'm just starting.

The major project that will probably keep me occupied for several years is based on a data set of the public Facebook pages of Syrians associated with nonviolent civil society groups. With the help of my Syrian refugee research assistant in Turkey, we created this dataset with about 1400 Facebook pages in it. And, in collaboration with a colleague at the University of Colorado, we have collected all the text of the posts from those Facebook pages. From these 1400 pages representing this new Syrian civil society, we will conduct text analyses on about 5 million posts, so I am especially looking forward to working more on that project.


Interview by James Pollard (WCAS '22)