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Societal transformation in conflict contexts

Alternative title: TRANSFORM

Awarded: NOK 10.1 mill.

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Project Period:

2017 - 2022


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In societies at war or facing severe repression, what motivates individuals to take action for social justice when doing so involves great risk and uncertainty? How do such small but often heroic everyday acts of common people inspire larger transformations? And what is the impact of storytelling about everyday acts that challenge inequalities and injustices in places like Myanmar, Somaliland and Syria? The TRANSFORM research team has grappled with these questions for four years. The TRANSFORM project has collected and highlighted the stories of people who attempt to challenge injustices in contexts of violent conflict and repression. This was done through meetings and long conversations with many ordinary - and at the same time unique - engaged individuals. The conversations showcased their sense of dignity, acts of care for others, and courageous ability to stand their ground in the face of repression. In Myanmar, Marte Nilsen conducted fieldwork in Myitkyina and Yangon on activists in education and land rights, while Trude Stapnes completed an MA research project on the student protest against the National Education Law in 2014. Both studies were published. For the Syrian case, which focuses on education, Kjetil Selvik conducted interviews in France, Lebanon and Turkey, in addition to virtual interviews. This equally resulted in a published article. The Somalia case focuses on a historical case of a group of professionals (known as 'uffo') engaged in transformative collective action in the North during the dictatorship of Siad Barre. To study this case, doctoral researcher Ebba Tellander conducted fieldwork for six weeks in January-February 2018 and for six-months from summer 2018 in Hargeisa, Somaliland. This study draws on more than 100 interviews with people who were present at the time, including life histories and TV interviews with the professionals themselves, as well as archival material. The thesis has been considered ?worthy of defense? by a committee and will be submitted after final revisions within the next few months. Tamar Groves, research partner from Spain, has spent two visiting researcher stays at PRIO to work on the role of education in transformation, writing one publications each (3 total) with the researchers on the case studies. Furthermore, project leader Cindy Horst conducted narrative research and wrote the manuscript 'Inspiring transformation? Stories about social justice practices arising in dark times', submitted to Oxford University Press for review. She has also published three theoretical papers on political agency. One of the most striking insights of the project has been the strong sense of responsibility people describe when asked about their actions, and how this responsibility often is connected to having experienced or witnessed injustice or oppression themselves. We found this strong sense of responsibility across the cases, despite differences in age, gender, social background and geographical location. Traumatic experiences and empowering turning points were seen to have the potential to shape strong and determined, but also humble and empathic, individuals, fighting for a better future for their communities. The form in which this drive to resist manifested itself varied greatly. People are fighting injustice and creating change in diverse and creative ways, for example by setting up educational initiatives, restoring a hospital, protesting on the streets, or creating art. They infuse mundane acts with much wider political implications in contexts where direct political action is unlikely to lead to anything but imprisonment, death or exile. A number of alternative data collection and dissemination methods have been developed. A virtual exhibition was created to present the results of the study ( In Somaliland, a 13-episode TV show on Star TV, featuring central members of the uffo group was produced - a collaboration between PRIO Global Fellow Mohamed Hassan, doctoral researcher Ebba Tellander, and a host of research assistants and volunteers ( With Ben Dix at PositiveNegatives, we produced animations and comics which were launched in October 2020. In Somaliland, a 10-page comic was created of the uffo group by Paris-based Congolese artist Pat Masioni. An animated version will be launched at Oslo Peace Days, in collaboration with Oslo municipality and young Somali-Norwegian politicians, artists and activists. For Syria, we worked with Syrian artist Diala Brisly on a 4-minute animation about female activists who are providing education for displaced children in Syria. The 6.5 minute animation for the Myanmar case displays the story of a land rights activist. Here, the land rights activist herself works directly with Burmese artist Kue Cool and animator Akhila Krishnan to develop the story.

TRANSFORM has created new insights on the exact nature of the moral and emotional drivers of civil resistance in times of oppression and violent conflict, and on the diversity of forms of civil resistance in oppressive contexts. The project involved cross-disciplinary collaboration between anthropologists, psychologists, political scientists, area studies specialists and historians. Our publications stimulate interdisciplinary dialogue between work in moral anthropology, political philosophy, Holocaust studies, resistance studies. TRANSFORM argues that engaged researchers not only contribute to social change through the findings and insights generated by their research, but also throughout the ripple effects of the research process itself and from the stories that are being illuminated. In the process of the research, shared learning took place that impacts how we carry out research, how local research assistants understand their history, or how artists and audiences engage.

In times of radical uncertainty and flux, how do individual deeds inspire collective action or lead to new institutional practices in ways that determine the direction a society takes? What can we learn from conflict contexts about the driving forces of societal transformation? TRANSFORM studies the small but often heroic everyday acts of common people who attempt to challenge dehumanizing trends of exclusion and abuse in violent conflict and civil war. The project involves a close examination of the origins of individual deeds in violent conflict, and the process by which these acts encourage collective action and new institutional practices. The individual, social and institutional drivers of transformation have not been studied systematically within one project, as disciplinary divides often prevent insights on one from informing research on the others. Thus, the project aims to make a theoretical contribution to the agency-structure impasse in the social sciences and humanities - an impasse that hides a fundamental disagreement about the driving forces of societal transformation. TRANSFORM combines a strong social-anthropological and political philosophical curiosity about the normative aspects of moral acts in situations of radical uncertainty with empirical research on actual practices and processes during transformative moments in the history of violent conflict and civil war in Syria, Somalia and Myanmar. Data collection combines life histories and institutional ethnography with a new method that uses graphic illustrations in focus group discussions, and will take place in the three countries and/or among refugee communities from these countries in the region and in Norway. Collecting data on the societal impacts of ordinary citizens' moral counter-acts of empathy, care and protection in conditions of suffering and marginalization, TRANSFORM aims to make a ground-breaking contribution to the newly established field of the 'anthropology of the good'.

Funding scheme:

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