Colleagues have previously argued on this blog that public opinion is a critical force in conflict transformation and peace building. It makes intuitive sense that serious assessment of the viability of peace processes requires taking stock of various societal forces -- not just the political will of elites but also the public will comprised of the preferences of various stakeholder groups.
These issues were tackled in a recently held roundtable organized by the National Endowment for Democracy  on public opinion research in support of the peace process in Sudan. International NGOs that work in this region were in the room to talk about their successes and challenges, and the focal presentations were made by Prof. Monroe E. Price  and Susan Abbott  from the Center for Global Communication Studies (CGCS)  at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication  and Stanhope Centre for Communications Policy Research  housed at the London School of Economics . Since April 2007, CGCS and Stanhope have provided analytical and research support to a public opinion research agenda in Sudan  for Albany Associates .
In conflict areas such as Darfur, conducting solid public opinion research, at first blush, seems undoable. In these contexts, most of the standard research methods are not practically, politically, and theoretically viable. In addition to the attendant security risks of working in conflict and conflict-affected areas, the basic building blocks of social scientific measurement and inference have been reduced to rubble. For example, selecting a useful sample from a population constantly changing in terms of internal displacement and undocumented cross-border flows is, at best, a daunting task.
Given these challenges, it would seem like the idea of doing public opinion research in Sudan, especially Darfur, is a non-starter. Not so. Informed by a series of workshops held at the Annenberg School for Communication at Penn and the Center for Socio-Legal Studies at the University of Oxford  where top academics, methodologists, and practitioners from around the world brought their collective expertise and experience to bear on the problem, a viable research program is now underway. CGCS and Stanhope call it a multi-track approach which brings together an array of methods from sociology, ethnography, and communication studies. The methods include oral histories, semi-structured interviews, surveys, content analyses of opinion pieces in the Sudanese and international press, and ethnographic online research of the Darfurian Diaspora. The research plan, pilot study report, and interim reports can be accessed here .
A quantitative methodologist might raise objections as regards the internal validity and generalizability of the findings to the Darfuri population. Technically, this position would be correct. But I believe it also misses the point. In conflict areas, the path to peace is not a sunlit highway. Under such dire circumstances, we can only do our best to illuminate the next few steps that lie ahead and cut through the darkness of the larger environment. The multi-track approach, in my view, promises to do just that.
Photo Credit: Refugee camp in Chad by Flickr User Mark Knobil