Studying peace in conflict zones: A reflexive assessment of the role of researchers
Studying peace in conflict zones: A reflexive assessment of the role of researchers
Peace is a contested concept in social science as in everyday life. For instance, the social representation of peace is much more diversified compared to war (Sarrica, 2007; Sarrica & Wachelke, 2012). Besides, Cortright (2008) recently argued in his seminal work that in fact, peace refers to a process, not a ‘state’. He suggests using a more operational term to define a process whereby societies move towards a peaceful state, such as peace-making or peace-building. Yet, the pathway towards peace is not free from obstacles or problems and it is not always linear. For instance, there have been methodological, ethical and security issues even for researchers in regions where peace is desired utmost importance: conflict zones (Haer & Becher, 2012; Kacen & Chaitin, 2006: Sriram, et al. 2009; Wood, 2006). In line with these efforts, a recent book entitled ‘Researching Peace, Conflict, and Power in the Field: Methodological Challenges and Opportunities’ from Springer Peace Psychology series, brings together a collection of the field experiences of researchers around the world. Together with Aslı Aydemir, we contributed to this collection a chapter focusing on changes in our role as a researcher, with a reflexive assessment during a non-linear peacebuilding process in Turkey commonly referred as the “Resolution Process”. In this blog post, we want to summarize the chapter to make it more accessible and to discuss the insights presented.
Phase 1: Before the conflict
The Turkish-Kurdish conflict has a long, multi-layered history ranging from ethnic discrimination to armed conflict (Ergin, 2014; Güneş, 2018). After the formation of the secular Kemalist regime, the elites’ systematic restriction of ethnic minorities’ access to political and economic power, along with Kurds’ political action, led to a civil war concentrated mostly in Kurdish-majority southeast Turkey (Başer, et al., 2017). After the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) came to power in Turkey in 2002, a Resolution Process (RP) which supposedly aimed to resolve the conflict, was started as part of accession negotiations with the European Union.
We, as authors, opened our eyes to this open political atmosphere as early career academics who were in favour of the resolution process. We were totally embedded in our personal, functional, disciplinary and institutional contexts (Wilkinson, 1988; Parker, 1994) which led us towards an idealistic expectation to understand what does peace mean for the younger generations. We thus initiated a project called ‘the social representation of peace among secondary education students’ with support and promotion from our colleagues. The optimistic motivation of the research team even determined the scope of the project. For instance, the topic was neither linked to our PhDs nor did we have probable financial support; nevertheless, we put together an ambitious, overarching project which needed years to be accomplished. Yet, the open political atmosphere, as well as the newly achieved positive connotations of the RP, enabled smoothness in other related mechanisms such as institutional facilitation, communication and decision-making. Also, the participants were observed to be more open to unconditionally speaking about topics formerly considered as “taboo”.
This phase can be characterized by ‘academic armor,’ defined as “physical and psychological means through which professional academics protect their expert positions or jurisdictions” (Lerum, 2001, p. 470). We were all young middle-class researchers collecting data about one of the most important topics on contemporary Turkey, and we dealt with data collection process without any obstacles. Our positions as “scientists” or “psychologists” were acknowledged by the parties we were in contact with. Also, the expectation of our colleagues and supervisors about emotional detachment (e.g., being distanced from the research topic) was the leading implicit principle to sustain the research as scientific (Lerum, 2001), which would become impossible soon after.
Phase Two: Emergence of Conflict
After the collapse of RP, the conflict escalated: several suicide attacks took place, targeting mainly Kurdish civilians in several demonstrations and public gatherings (Başer et al., 2017). On the other hand, the nonviolent organization of the Kurdish movement experienced a significant shift toward a militant movement (Üstündağ, 2019). Different sources stated that between 335,000 and half a million people had been displaced in the Kurdish region between July 2015 and December 2016 (AMNESTY, 2016; OHCHR, 2017). Moreover, according to the International Crisis Group, approximately 2,000 people – mainly Kurds – were killed in security operations (Mandıracı, 2016). The heavy clashes and tension served to deepen the insecurity about ethnic divisions and led to a loss of formal and public support of the RP (Tekdemir et al., 2018).
The escalation of the conflict and the tense political atmosphere started to affect our field research, our motivation for conducting the project, as well as the outcomes of the study. The positive connotations toward peace vanished within months in the research team’s institutional network. For instance, one of the teachers from a Kurdish province who handed out our surveys in her classes faced an administrative investigation by Turkish authorities on charges of “inciting the public to hatred and hostility.” Therefore, we decided to stop data collection in public schools to avoid more potential harm to our participants and contacts. As a consequence, our research field narrowed down to the western regions where the conflict was less salient, resulting in an overrepresentation of cities such as İstanbul (Bayad et al., 2020).
The second incident that affected our social position as researchers/academics was a petition campaign in 2016 entitled “We will not be a party to this crime,” calling for an end to the long-term curfews (e.g., Academics for Peace, AfP), that five members of the research team including the authors, signed. The reaction of the AKP and its allies to AfP resulted in a never-ending forensic investigation and economic exclusion that would later be referred to as “civil death” by signatories (see, Aktas, et al., 2019). The hostile political atmosphere also affected our social position within and outside academia as well as impacting the project. Our legitimacy as scientists was lost firstly because academics were delegitimized on a national level and the discipline of social sciences was more specifically under attack (Sözeri, 2016). Witnessing the derogation of academics at all career stages led our whole research team to feel disempowered and alone since we were mostly early-career researchers without any institutional support anymore. We lost our emotional detachment from the research via shifting our focus from a macro, abstract, overarching peace towards the safety in our immediate environment and relations which we were already closely attached. In other words, our “academic armor” was broken so that all the socio-political developments affected not only our academic but also our personal identities (Lerum, 2001).
Phase three: After the conflict
Self-censorship was institutionalized under the threat of dismissals and other possible threats from authorities (Tekdemir et al., 2018). Discussing or researching certain concepts, such as peace, peacebuilding or negotiations, was criminalized (Başer et al., 2017) by shutting down TV channels (e.g., Peace TV), banning public gatherings (e.g., International Day of Peace, remembrance of Ankara Peace Meeting) and removing monuments (e.g., Peace Monument in Mardin, see Oral, et al., 2018). A most relevant example for us was a self-censorship case of the Turkish Psychological Association’s (TPD) national psychology congress in 2016. The conference, entitled “Peace and Psychology,” was rejected by the university originally slated to host it (TPD, 2016).
The attacks on the concept of peace, academia, and specifically AfP signatories, also led to a counter-reaction from many fields of civil society including journalists, actors, unions, political parties and so on (Abbas & Zalta, 2017). In line with this counter-reaction, the petitioners started calling themselves ‘Peace Academics,’ which had a side effect that challenged the academic armor: political engagement as a separate and relatively personal part of our social lives came to the forefront of our academic identity. We devoted more time and effort to constructing both emotional and material solidarity to protect ourselves against political attacks rather than carrying out research and academic duties. Furthermore, we started to take part in academic collectives that were being organized outside of the universities and mostly consisted of critical social scientists (see Acar & Coşkan, 2020; Erdem & Akın, 2019). At the end of phase three, our initial attempt to investigate the social representation of peace among secondary education students was no longer realistic due to lack of access to the field, decreasing motivation within the research team, restrictions on the concept of peace and financial obstacles.
Peace psychology research aims to “promote the nonviolent management of conflict and the pursuit of social justice” (Christie et al., 2001, p. 7). However, ironically, in the contexts where peace is most desirable, unfortunately, societal marginalization, political oppression and conflict also emerge (Cohen & Arieli, 2011; Haer & Becher, 2012; Kacen & Chaitin, 2006). Within such settings, not only conducting research but also the difficulty in finding motivation makes research even harder (Lerum, 2001; Moss et al., 2019). Additionally, our reflexive analysis shows how fragile and interconnected personal and professional identities are, under both open and oppressive political atmospheres. We began as peace psychology researchers during an optimistic period of time and later transformed to peace seeker activists devoting their time and energy to collective academic action, which led to changes in our motivation, research strategy as well as the results of our research. The reflexive analysis of our role during a fluxional political context reveals that researcher identity per se is a part of the research process whereby personal, functional, disciplinary and institutional dynamics are at play (Wilkinson, 1988; Parker, 1994). Thus, a reflexive self-awareness is a fundamental part of field research, especially in peace psychology.
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Aydın Bayad, MA., has completed his Master degree in Social Psychology at Istanbul University. Currently, he is a PhD candidate at Bielefeld University and associated researcher in the Institute for Interdisciplinary Conflict and Violence Research (IKG). His research focuses on ethnic identity formation, identity conflict, value change and peace psychology. He is continuing his research on transnational right-wing populism and maintenance of Turkish identity in Europe as a Hans Böckler Foundation fellow.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict and Violence / University of Bielefeld
Aslı Aydemir; MA., has completed her Master degree in Social Psychology at Istanbul University. While continuing her postgraduate education, she was working as a research assistant at Dicle and Istanbul Universities at the same time, but she was removed and banned from public service with a decree-law (no. 695) due to she is one of the signatories of the “We will not be a party to this crime!” petition. Now, she is a PhD candidate at İstanbul University and her research interests include women and elderly in the family interactions, ageism, elder rights, feminist gerontology and peace psychology.
Contact: email@example.com Istanbul University/Social Psychology
In the IKGScienceBlog, IKG researchers comment on current social issues from the perspective of conflict and violence research. The blog aims to promote the social debate on current conflict issues. The blogs represent the authors' point of view.