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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2001, Vol. 4 No. 1 .


Violence and Subjectivity
Veena Das, Arthur Kleinman, Mamphela Ramphele, and Pamela Reynolds (eds.)

Berkeley, CA and London: University of California Press, 2000
389pp. Index. Pb.: 12.50; ISBN 0-520-21608-3.



It is easy in conflict resolution research and practice to lose sight of the individuals: the constant barrage of media reporting can induce a kind of trauma fatigue, and popular, essentialist explanations for violence see individuals as only metonymic of larger tribal, ethnic or sectarian groups at war with one another. The editors attempt to bring individuals and subjectivity back into focus through this collection of conference papers on violence in South Africa, Guatemala, Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, the Balkans, Nigeria, and the United States.

As with most cross-disciplinary and edited collections, the result is mixed. On the one hand, the collection provides an interesting overview of social scientific attempts to come to terms with subjectivity, something that anthropologists Veena Das and Arthur Kleinman define as "the felt interior experience of the person that includes his or her positions in a field of relational power"(p. 1). Thus, the authors draw from the conceptual repertoires of their various disciplines (political science, sociology, history, and anthropology) to link the subjectivities of individuals and their families, individual activists, and entire generations, to violence occurring on local, state and international levels. But even with a good introductory essay, its hard to walk away from the collection with a coherent sense of how to apply these disparate conceptual frameworks to new settings.

Still, for the patient reader, several essays are particularly insightful for the conflict resolution researcher and practitioner. For example, Jonathan Spencer's essay about a young Sinhala activist gives a thought provoking answer to the question of why some in communities affected by violence (here Sri Lanka) choose not to become terrorists. Susan Woodward, in a cogent critique of the concept of intervention, draws our attention to how Western states and international organizations had begun their interventions into the everyday politics and lives of Balkan citizens well before the breakup of Yugoslavia. Pamela Reynolds moves expertly from an individual illustration, to a small group of respondents, to her results from a large-scale survey of children, to describe the impact of state violence on children and their support networks in South Africa. And Kay Warren and Murray Last remind us of the difficult place of history in individual's experiences and understanding of violence. To some, like the pan-Mayan activist/scholar described by Warren, the mythified nationalist history of the Spanish Conquest became a critical vehicle for understanding the impact of the more recent Guatemalan Civil War on contemporary Mayan populations, and for his advocacy of a new Mayan political identity during the negotiations leading to the Guatemalan Peace Accords. In contrast, Murray Last suggests that some people may not want to remember histories of violence; a critical insight he uses to distinguish between the purposely non-interested "bystanders" and interested "watchers" of Nigeria's civil war over Biafra's attempted secession (1966-1968). There, the effect of the state's efforts to bring about an end to the war and a post-war recovery varied depending in part on the relevance of memories, both public and private, to these different groups.


Christopher T. Timura
Department of Anthropology




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