Challenges of Studying Nonviolence and Conflict

12 Jun

I started my internship with the Sentinel Project Monday.  This means two things: 1) I’ve started doing research for my thesis which will also produce a set of policy recommendations for SP and 2) I have more time to blog regularly.  I knew my thesis topic, which will attempt to address the question “Is it possible to respond nonviolently to mass atrocities, and if so, how?”, would be challenging, simply because there is so little written on the topic.  And when I say “so little”, I mean basically nothing.  Therefore, I’ve quickly realized that much of my thesis will be aggregation and synthesis, rather than critiquing existing works on the subject and proposing slightly different theories (read some great, tangentially related, articles though).  Of course there’s plenty of work on nonviolence, civil wars, mass atrocities, and political conflict, but, perhaps because peace studies is a new field of study, few academic works link nonviolence, civilian protection, and political violence.  Most nonviolence literature deals with civilian attempts to overthrow governments, but fails to see civilians as active actors unless they participate in a social movement with a specific, macropolitical goal.  In his article on civilian nonviolent self-protection in Colombia, political scientist Oliver Kaplan underlines this problem nicely:

“Despite anecdotes of effectiveness and the buoyancy of activists, this literature on civilian movements remains under-theorized, without specifying causal mechanisms, or processes by which organized civilian resistance might affect substantively interesting outcomes. The causal ‘force’ of civilians has not been made falsifiable or comparatively evaluated against the positivist, macropolitical explanations of violence. As a result we have been unable to discern whether the effects of civilian social cohesion and organization in wartime are epiphenomenal to – derivative of – armed groups’ interests (as Kalyvas suggests they are). It is for good reason then that in Kalyvas’s (2006: 110) passing discussion of local committees in conflict zones he observes, ‘We know little about how they actually operate.’” ”

This theoretical gap means that the next step in nonviolence literature should be to understand how civilians interact with armed actors during conflict to protect themselves, but unfortunately, a theoretical study isn’t out there yet (or at least I haven’t found it).  Oliver Kaplan’s article (linked to above) is a good start, but even then, his work focuses on civil wars, where civilians are not the primary target.  In the community he studied in Colombia, civilians experienced violence when they participate, or are believed to have participated, on one side or the other of the civil war.  While even that distinction did little to protect civilians before a community association was formed, that thin buffer does not exist in situations where civilians are the target of large-scale violence.  Understanding how individuals can nonviolently protect themselves in these situations is the gap I need to fill with my thesis.

*If any readers have any suggestions on reading or approaches I could take, please feel free to leave them in the comments.

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4 Responses to “Challenges of Studying Nonviolence and Conflict”

  1. dhirsch1 June 12, 2013 at 9:45 pm #

    Another appropriate quote from an article in the same journal issue as Kaplan’s, “Indeed, scholars and practitioners or activists in the fields of social movements, nonviolent action, political violence and conflict resolution seem to be largely evolving in parallel, often in relative isolation from each other. For instance, most security studies and conflict resolution experts are unfamiliar with the rich scholarship and empirics on civil resistance, given their narrow focus on armed conflicts and their termination through military means or negotiated settlements. In turn, most nonviolent scholars tend to hold oversimplified views on the dynamics and nature of armed struggle and warfare. Finally, social movement experts usually direct most of their attention to radicalization processes (i.e. shifts from peaceful to violent contentious action), at the expense of de-escalation (or demilitarization) dynamics.”

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