When I was 5 or 6, I was walking home from school in Belfast with my best friend and her mum. We were stopped by a photographer on our suburban street who wanted an image of children from ‘war torn Belfast’. The image was to illustrate a story in the local evening paper about an incident that had happened to other children on the other side of the city.

With a child’s ethics my interpretation was that the photographer was lying. I thought that they were too much of a coward or too lazy to make the effort ahead of their deadline. Rather than ask for an authentic image from the people who had actually experienced that violence, they misrepresented us all and silenced all our voices.

In March the UK papers marked ten years since the start of the war in Syria. I opened a weekend supplement and experienced the ‘Big Picture’ feature. The photo was of two girls described as ‘play fighting’ inside a transparent tent in a public park in a named town in Turkey. The Syrian father was described as ‘too paranoid’ to tell the Danish photographer his daughters’ names. The children’s faces and the family’s home are entirely identifiable. There is no anonymity, no privacy, no right of reply.

The Danish photographer describes seeing people drown, and families crawling under razor wire. We read of refugees as HIS study, HIS obsession, how INDEFATIGABLE he is; and the challenge of HIS readjustment when he returns home. You can buy his latest book for £35 or get £5 off if you order from the newspaper’s bookshop.

Those of us who come from conflict-impacted societies will recognise the commodification of our lives, the lionising of external actors who construct THEIR narrative of OUR lives, and the monetising of these narratives benefiting creatives, journalists, researchers through profiles, book deals, and jobs.

Why parasitic swallows?

So, why did I coin the term ‘parasitic swallows’, what does it mean?

As an adult what I have observed is that there is a migratory pattern to the flocks of external researchers coming into the north of Ireland. They arrive in the summer – academic holidays coinciding with some of the most contentious annual events such as the marching season, and the commemoration of internment without trial.

Swallows are migratory birds, travelling between the global north and south, freely moving between spaces that are ambient, that provide sustenance for them to live safely and productively. I won’t labour the metaphor of the value and importance of freedom of movement, of migration.

‘Parasitic’ is a visceral term. To draw on cultural theorist Stuart Hall, it is an encoded linguistic device. It provides a psychic space in which I process the maddeningly unethical practice by professional peers.

When I meet with others from my own or like backgrounds it is readily de-coded with an expression of recognition, connection: “Yes, us too”. When I first met with Dr Randa Sherhan, there was this mutual recognition and shared experience. When I was speaking recently with colleagues in the community sector in Northern Ireland, we spoke it too “Yes, and still, and still even after a Peace Settlement dated 1998, still they come”.

‘Parasitic swallows’ is an expression of my agency. It is a response to researchers who swoop into MY home, feed off the carrion of trauma data, and then fly off again without providing any benefit to research participants or their society; perhaps doing harm, retraumatising, preventing people from evolving their identity beyond the conflict.

In Ireland we have an expression: ‘Neither use not ornament’. Researchers who are parasitic swallows are neither use not ornament to anyone but themselves and, possibly, their institutions.

I recognise that there are a diverse set of professional personas at play. To characterise – or to caricature – they are:

  • the well-intended but unconnected,
  • the well-intended and connected (for us, including generations of the Irish diaspora returning to the homeland of their foremothers and forefathers),
  • the prurient, and
  • the ambitious who weave a ribbon development of conflict research into a career path of qualifications, positions, publications and grants.

Headline Messages

  • Research and data are huge resources for conflict impacted communities – they can be used to record, to inform, to direct, to persuade.
  • The spending of significant resource for little impact is not what researchers, funders or research audiences want to occur.
  • However, although there is ethical guidance and mechanisms, there is still extremely poor practice happening.
  • Conversations such this gathering are timely, and urgent.
  • It is critical that all actors are engaged including researchers at all career stages, institutional review boards, funders and local gatekeepers such as academic institutions, NGOs and INGOs.
  • Full participation in these conversations requires:
  • a recognition of the power dynamics that are present;
  • development of research literacy amongst communities including exercise of their own agency and ‘Right to Say No’; and
  • an openness to consider sanctions by Institutional Review Boards and funders.

Trans-disciplinary perspectives

I think it is important for this to be a trans-disciplinary conversation.

To date, there have been substantial contributions to the field of sensitive research from my own traditions of feminist research and critical social science.

Situated within an emancipatory consciousness, Critical Social Scientists aim to provide a catalytic explanation of the social order, which leads to the transformation of that social order (Fay 1987 in Neuman 2003). The emancipatory tradition asserts that academic discourse is not only a descriptive and explanatory enterprise, but also a political and transformative endeavour that intends social change (Baker et al 2004). This is an unashamedly political and partisan stance (Kincheloe and McLaran 2005) embodied in the identity of the ‘scholarly activist’.

Researchers who are ‘scholarly activists’ stress the importance of the researchers’ identity, location, standpoint and ongoing self-reflexivity.

Human Rights Principles of Data as Framework

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights published a Human Rights Based Approach to Data as part of the Sustainable Development agenda[1].

They outlined the following Principles:

  • Participation
  • Self-Identification
  • Disaggregation
  • Transparency
  • Privacy
  • Accountability

I propose that these human rights principles provide touchstones for our discussion.


To conclude, I want to say something about the importance of voice.

I value the opportunity to have this time with Randa and Sharon because I believe that it important that this conversation is led by researchers from conflict-impacted, humanitarian, and fragile settings.

I hope we hear from researchers with such backgrounds.

I believe this is an ethical conversation that is necessary and overdue.

Thank you.


Dr. Iris Elliott



This blog publishes my input to the Research for Health in Conflict – Middle East North Africa (R4HC-MENA) partnership’s webinar: Parasitic Swallows’ Experiences of doing research with ‘vulnerable people’ in humanitarian settings (25 March 2021). Dr Randa Serhan, American University of Beirut, chaired the event, and Dr Sharon Mallon, Open University joined the two of us in conversation. Dr Adam Coutts organised the event.

Dr Ammar Azzouz contributed, in a personal capacity, reflections on his tweet on this issue, which went viral with supportive engagement from African, South American, European and North American countries. https://twitter.com/Dr_Ammar_Azzouz/status/1372927683059986440


[1] Ref: A Human Rights Based Approach to Data – Leaving No One Behind in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Guidance Note to Data Collection and Disaggregation (NB available in: Arabic Chinese English French Russian Spanish.