Bridget Conley poses a challenging question, that is, for us to think about our own research practice in which we face people who have lived through violence and conflict. She asks Does it matter if the subject of mass atrocities is named as: an ethnic, national, racial or religious group; civilian; population; perpetrator, victim, bystander or rescuer; or something else? My simple answer to this question is yes, it greatly matters. Let me explain as a researcher how it matters to me in the way I name the subject of my research. Here I explain in brief why I name the subject of my research as people and not as either victims or perpetrators.
The naming is labeling. The process of naming is important as the name, the word which will name the subject needs to come from somewhere. Where do I get the word? It comes from the language that is available to me in a given context. In itself it carries meanings that will be part of the labeling of the subject of my research when I name them with a particular word. Looking at violent conflict contexts, the language provides two central words that one would deploy to name the subjects of the research: victims and perpetrators. These words not only carry moral positionings for the researcher, but also allocate research subjects into groups which will broadly be considered, and be judged, according to the morality implied in the relationship between these words in the language available to me. This way of positioning my research subjects will often implicitly legitimate my focusing my research on one part of the story related to victims. This will make me move away from understanding socio-political mechanisms that underwrite the violence and focus on particular subjects and their stories. Why does this matter? This language use matters from at least three angles.
First, if I label my subjects under these words that categorises them into already established positions of victimhood and perpetrators. Does this allow me to understand their experiences independent of these categories? Ludwig Wittgenstein stated that ‘what really comes to before our mind when we understand a word? – Isn’t it something like a picture? Can’t it be a picture (1997, PI 139). In other words when we name the subject with these words they already bring an image of what it means to be victim or perpetrator into our minds. Does this allow us to engage with the research subjects to understand the dynamics of their lives? It seems that the picture these words evoke in our language will filter what we hear from our research subjects. So even when we ask questions about their experiences these two words will frame the questions. Wittgenstein pointed out that ‘I reveal to him something of myself when I tell him what I was going to do. Not, however, on grounds of self-observation, but by way of a response’ (1997: PI 659). In their answers to us they will be answering in such a way to satisfy our questions and will frame their experiences to fit into the way these two words frame our thinking (Seckinelgin 2008: 120).
Second, Victor Klemperer reflects that ‘language does not simply write and think for me, it also increasingly dictates my feelings and governs my entire spiritual being the more unquestioningly and consciously I abandon myself to it’ (2013:14). The language is not passive it actively engages both with the researcher and the research subject. It frames the researcher’s mind. It provides tools for the research subjects to express themselves in order to fit into that frame of mind. They define themselves with our language and gradually these words inform how they describe their subjectivities. Ian Hacking argues that ‘the classification of people and their acts can influence people and what they do directly’ (1992:190). People react to the way they are categorised through being named. In their reaction to the way they are named they also re-engage with each other as well as with the researcher who is doing the naming. Hacking calls this ‘looping effect’ (1995). This raises questions about the implications of using victim-perpetrator as names in engaging in research with people who have experienced violence and conflict.
Third, the researcher arrives at a research scene with an active involvement with words, victims and perpetrators. In this the researcher thinks how to engage with his field through these words. But these words have a history, with meanings developed within that history, which frames the scene for the researcher even before the researcher meets his research subjects. In naming his subjects, considering them either as victims or as perpetrators, the researcher turns people into a kind of species for which we have a mental picture that is underpinned by past experiences elsewhere. In this people’s experiences become meaningful according to a universal model. Considering the first two points this also means that people can begin to relate to each other as victims and perpetrators as positions fixed in time. If the aim of the study is not to add to the archives of victims and perpetrators but to understand causes of things so that people can build their relations and lives, this process of naming the subject with these particular words becomes unhelpful. It creates situations where iteratively people use these words as acquired identities to engage with each other as well as with people from outside to be able to have a voice.
So in response to the second question posed by Bridged Conley, I suggest that in order to study mechanism/processes of violence rather than particular subjects one needs to start to use words that do not lock people into historical positions independent of their experiences of each other as the dynamics of societies change. Furthermore, words we use should not create atemporal positions that will become signs of identification over time and will not allow people to engage with each other within the social dynamics of everyday life. The important part of the research is to understand the mechanisms of why social relations produce violent outcomes. In an attempt to understand these mechanisms the research should not lock people into subject positions that will lead to the replication of antagonisms that are perceived to be non-negotiable. Or, positions that become so naturalized that they are considered to be beyond the politics of everyday negotiations.
Ian Hacking (1992) ‘World-making by kind-making: child abuse for example’, in M. Douglas and S. Hall, How Classification Works: Nelson Goodman among the Social Sciences. Edinburg: Edinburg University Press.
Ian Hacking (1995) ‘the looping effects of human kinds’ in D. Sperber, D. Premack and A. Premack (eds.) In Causal Cognition: An Interdisciplinary Approach. Oxford: OUP.
Victor Klemperer (2013) The Language of the Third Reich. London: Bloomsbury.
Hakan Seckinelgin (2008) International Politics of HIV/AIDS: Global Disease-Local Pain. London: Routledge.
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1997) Philosophical Investigations. London: Blackwell.
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