The Spanish newspaper El Pais recently listed the Colombia-Venezuela border as one of the seven hells on earth that one should never visit―next to places such as the Islamic State, northern Nigeria, and Somalia. Insight Crime, a research foundation analysing organised crime in Latin America, counts the border among the five most dangerous borders of the region, next to the violence-ridden US-Mexico border.
As I witnessed when carrying out research on my own along the Colombia-Venezuela border, the presence of multiple violent non-state elements, including guerrillas, right-wing groups, and drug cartels, makes the region a difficult place to visit. Conflict actors exert territorial and social control on both sides of the border; cocaine is smuggled in any thinkable way; women are kidnapped for human trafficking; and border officials supplement poor salaries with bribes. Still, when it comes to crossing the border, the risks aren’t clearly visible. There is no fortified wall as at the US-Mexico border. There isn’t a deep ocean to cross on a life-risking journey as across the Mediterranean Sea. And there are no robot border guards pointing their guns at people who attempt to cross the borderline as at the Korean North-South divide. And yet, there is a constant unease and pre-sentiment that something might happen. There is the feeling of being a potential victim, the normalised perpetual fear that arises from moving from one place to another―inconceivable to me before having experienced it myself.
Studying these borderlands is even more dangerous as academic research might be interpreted incorrectly by onlookers. This is an environment where mistrust and suspicion reign. By definition, illegal business deals are not legally binding; betrayal and cheating are omnipresent. Not only is this reflected in the relationships among different violent non-state groups, but among local community members as well. Coming into communities at the Colombia-Venezuela border as a stranger to do fieldwork doesn’t make things easier. Certainly, being an outsider can help: devoid of previous allegiances with any of the sides and of any institutional affiliation that may be judged in certain ways, especially in the highly politicised Colombian and Venezuelan societies, one can be perceived to be impartial. Yet, at the same time, personalising the ‘unknown’ to any local interlocutor can also represent a challenge.
The danger of being victimised when researching such uncanny borderlands makes constantly negotiating new trust relationships essential. Planning multi-sited fieldwork across borders involves establishing contacts, finding accommodation, booking flights, working out back-up plans, and locating bus timetables for each new site. During my fieldwork, local contact persons offered their support, accompanied me to the research sites, and/or invited me to stay in their homes, but I typically had little time to get to know them very well. In most villages I only stayed between one and seven days. Given the time constraints, I often had to rely on recommendations from trusted previous interviewees as my only reference.
Citing Lewis and Weigert, Norman differentiates between cognitive and personal, or emotional, trust; cognitive trust ‘is based on a cognitive process which discriminates amongst persons and institutions that are trustworthy, distrusted and unknown.’ Guided by interests, this ‘thin’ trust is in line with a rational choice approach to decision-making. Emotional trust is rooted in personal relationships. These two forms help foster understanding of trust relationships in a relatively stable context after having spent some time at a specific research site. I found a third form crucial to quickly adapting to the multiple new research contexts and to travelling between them: intuitive trust. The Oxford Dictionaries define intuition as ‘the ability to understand something instinctively, without the need for conscious reasoning.’ Where lacking information on people and in the absence of time to slowly establish rapport and build ‘thick’ trust, the gut feeling in combination with interpersonal skills tell you whether to trust people or not. In ‘normal’ circumstances, intuiting wrongly may lead to a lost opportunity; in conflict zones and other violent contexts, this may cost one’s life.
The following anecdote on how I attempted to cross the border between the Venezuelan state of Zulia and the Colombian department of La Guajira illustrates the dilemma of intuition. The dilemma results from the necessity to trust strangers while travelling between research sites on the one hand, and the anxiety arising from doubting one’s gut feeling, on the other.
I succeeded in crossing the border. I intuited correctly; the people I interacted with were supportive. Nevertheless, the risks linked to following intuition and the uncertainty of not being able to build cognitive or emotional trust fuelled my anxiety. This anxiety taught me a lesson: anxiety, intertwined with a desire to reach one’s destination in the midst of potential dangers on the way, is important to understanding the borderlanders’ security concerns. That is, while in many countries people are concerned with arriving on time, borderlanders are concerned with arriving at all, and therefore limit travelling to the necessary and prefer to stay in a familiar location with trusted people.
Such time-limited, multi-sited fieldwork, especially across and around borders, demonstrates the importance of intuitive trust. Rather than studying textbooks, building intuitive trust requires sharpening interpersonal skills and paying attention to the local environment. On this basis, intuitive trust has a double effect: it’s conducive to successful fieldwork with reduced security risks while also enhancing understanding of the local communities who live in fragile contexts such as the Colombia-Venezuela border where crime and conflict dynamics converge. Understanding these communities is the first step to working towards improving their situations.
How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)
Idler, A. (2015) From The Field: Intuitive Trust Matters: Researching Conflict and Crime across Borders. Available at:(Accessed [date]).