When I began working on my PhD in the UK in 2010, senior colleagues were quick to declare that visiting the places I studied was fundamental to conducting historical research. But this was not accompanied by discussion of the potential problems of doing so – or how not visiting might shape the histories I ultimately produced.
Historians are well aware that archives inform the research questions we pursue, but equally a whole host of professional and personal circumstances necessarily shape the works we produce. While historians have increasingly become better at reflecting on personal positionality and research methods and ethics (especially in oral history), we can be less transparent about all the factors that go into the histories we write. To start with, how do the archives or places we don’t, or can’t, access also shape the histories we write – in both restrictive and productive ways? On one hand, what are the problematics involved in writing about places we are unable to visit? On the other, how does in-access provide opportunities to ask alternative questions about the past?
I recently published a book, Afghan Crucible, on the Soviet invasion and civil war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Afghan Crucible offers a history of Afghanistan in the 1980s that is fundamentally international due to the actors it follows. It does not offer an on-the-ground history of the war or its local impacts because that was not a history I could write based on my sources, skills, or resources; it is rooted more in global history, rather than area studies, methodologies. This approach additionally reflected the limitations that inevitably resulted from the fact that I did not conduct research in Afghanistan.
Going to Afghanistan had been part of my research plans, but early on, a visit made little sense when the project was still embryonic. By the time I had a clearer sense of the book’s direction, the window of opportunity had largely passed. Circumstances in Afghanistan were increasingly unsettled, and I lacked funding and an adequate stretch of time. Not only that, but through conversations with peers and colleagues, I had become increasingly sensitive to some of the ethical dilemmas associated with conducting research in conflict zones. Balancing the need to ‘do no harm’ with pursuing my historical research questions required confronting questions of security, safety, and anonymity for myself and, more especially, my potential local interlocutors.
There are many practical dilemmas involved in historical research – especially when potentially challenging international travel is involved. In my case, I had no community ties to Afghanistan. In past visits to Pakistan, I was heavily indebted to the generosity and help of local friends and colleagues who made my visa, visits, and research possible. In Afghanistan, with my limited connections and equally limited language skills – I read, rather than spoke, Urdu and had chosen to learn Russian rather than Dari or Pashto – I would have been almost entirely reliant on the paid and unpaid labour and expertise of local Afghans: interpreters, interviewees, scholars, archivists, drivers, hosts, the list goes on. Even if I could swoop in to visit archives and libraries in Kabul, or potentially pursue interviews, my time and interactions in Afghanistan would have been necessarily limited, not immersive.
In contrast, my visit might have lasting local repercussions. Recent events have only too clearly shown the risks of association with (Western) foreigners far outlast the moment of encounter, as Afghan interpreters and employees who worked with foreign governments desperately try to secure visas to escape Taliban retaliation. Were my research needs so great that I could justify potentially putting others’ lives at risk? The short answer was no. This was an instance where experiential learning felt neither justifiable nor, ultimately, feasible.
This returns us to my initial point. As historians, many of us are highly attuned to our sources’ contingencies: to archives’ silences or the need to read against the grain to detect obscured historical actors; how archives reemphasize or reaffirm certain power imbalances; how they are themselves shaped by individuals and institutions. But often, we are less forthcoming about the other demands that shape the works we research and write.
Some choices we, as individuals and as historians, make, while others are beyond our control. We choose the subfields in which to situate our research and thus what skills we need and languages we learn. We decide what archives to visit, based not just on what we hope to find, but also on funding, levels of institutional support, and ease of access (a particularly vexed issue when visas and permissions are involved, or external circumstances intervene). How and when we write are further shaped by personal, professional, and institutional requirements and timescales. And of course, our own positionality – our race, gender, class, nationality, etc. – comes into play throughout. Positionality has been a source of ethical debate in relation to historical study and authorship, and it likewise impacts who can conduct certain international research (and how).
All these factors particularly shape global or international histories such as Afghan Crucible. I had opportunities to visit some archives but not others and made choices about the languages I learned. The ethical questions I wrestled with led me to seek Afghan actors and perspectives in archives and places outside Afghanistan. Afghan Crucible mirrors the perspectives of Afghan elites I encountered in an international set of archives. Materials across Europe, North America, and South Asia revealed Afghans who saw themselves as internationalists. Afghan elites and intellectuals, party leaders and political organizers lobbied foreign governments and institutions like the United Nations and UN High Commissioner for Refugees. They produced multilingual publications that targeted audiences across the world. They saw the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan not just as a local crisis but as a litmus test for postcolonial sovereignty, the nature of international relations, and different modes of governance and citizenship.
The methodologies I employed were shaped by the contingencies of my historical research – with interesting intellectual consequences. Afghan Crucible took on a layered form and an international outlook. I ultimately organized the book around a wide host of characters who became involved in Afghanistan during the 1980s: the Afghan socialists who seized power in 1978 and the political groups who resisted them, Soviet and American administrations, regional governments, the UN and UNHCR. Focusing on this array of historical actors revealed that decision-making in local and far-flung locales had numerous, often unintended consequences – for Afghanistan as well as regional and global politics. For example, while some Afghan intellectuals had been embedded in transnational Islamic networks for decades and advocated a key role for political Islam in Afghanistan’s governance, it was the 1980s nexus between civil war, US covert aid, Pakistani Islamization policies, the Iranian revolution, and an Afghan refugee crisis that gave Afghan Islamist groups new, exceptional opportunities to promote their ideas, assume a pivotal role in the civil war, and lead broader discussions of Islamist governance.
The international archives I visited created an opportunity to ask questions not only about Afghan history but about anti-colonialism and decolonization, political thought, the global Cold War, and the nature of international relations in the late twentieth century. These materials drew attention to unexpected connections between individuals, groups, ideas, commodities, and networks that linked events in Afghanistan to broader developments across the world in the late 1970s and 1980s. In other words, these archives, and the choices I made along the way, shaped my ultimate focus on the Afghan civil war as an international and regional crisis, not just a local one.
Writing any history – though especially histories of sensitive places, peoples, or issues or which are less accessible for a host of reasons – is challenging. We need to recognize and acknowledge as much. But it also can provide opportunities to ask alternative historical questions that are equally important. My history of the Afghan civil war of the 1980s sits alongside a growing body of research on Afghanistan which offers an important corrective to the western view of Afghanistan as the ‘graveyard of empires’. Through the archives I accessed and the questions I asked, I still managed to trace some Afghan visions of the national and international and engagement with competing universalist notions of ‘modernity’.
But the challenges I faced writing Afghan Crucible are part of an increasingly common story, one that forces us to think about the compromises we make in the histories we write. Archival closures, restrictions or reclassifications, as in China and India, potentially require scholars to pivot to external sources to tell their histories. Wars, like that in Ukraine, cut off access to, even destroy, previously accessible materials. Governments’ political agendas affect the types of researchers and research projects that receive visas, a story that has become visible in India recently and has been apparent in the UK for years. And it’s not just a question of accessing written materials. Being embedded in communities is important, but as circumstances in Myanmar have shown, we also need to acknowledge and reflect on how researching these stories might not always feasible, or, even more seriously, puts our interlocutors at risk.
We cannot escape that the archives we do or don’t visit shape the histories we write, just as we cannot escape how our personal and professional circumstances also influence the works we produce. But our experiences provide an important opportunity to think about how (in)access potentially produces alternative research questions, as well as the broader ethics of how we pursue our work. In both cases, there are important conversations to be had about historical methodologies, the promises and pitfalls of the research we conduct, and the numerous other contingencies that shape our professional processes. To do so, we must embrace transparency, acknowledging what we are, and are not, able to do, as well as, perhaps, exploring alternative ways of doing history moving forward.
Elisabeth Leake is Associate Professor of International History at the University of Leeds. She is the author of Afghan Crucible: The Soviet Invasion and the Making of Modern Afghanistan (Oxford University Press, 2022), a global history of the Afghan civil war of the 1980s, and The Defiant Border: The Afghan-Pakistan Borderlands in the Era of Decolonization, 1936-65 (Cambridge University Press, 2016). She tweets @elisabeth_leake.