Voices in Education

Education and Violent Political Conflict
Over the last decade, scholars in the field of international and comparative education have been increasingly concerned with the study of education and violent conflict, as reflected in the mounting efforts to mobilize publication, conferences, and symposia such as Harvard Educational Review's spring 2009 collection on education and violent political conflict. This fast-growing scholarship appears to have followed several trends, at first paying attention to the impact of violent conflict on education and children, and then focusing on role of education itself in perpetuating or mitigating violent conflict. More recently, the increased interest of international organizations in educational provision as an integral component of humanitarian response in complex emergencies and post-war situations has seemingly accelerated the call for, funding of, and visibility of this research. Given the USAID estimate that 90 percent of war casualties in the last decade were civilian (as compared with 10 percent over the last century), the need for sound research on education and violent conflict has become increasingly urgent in order to better inform policy, programming and practice in the delivery of educational services, which until now, has been conducted largely without critical engagement of research, history, or intention.

The call for research has raised serious questions about how such research can be (or is being) conducted ethically and effectively, given the unique and often evolving nature of the conflict/post-war research context. The issue of how data is collected, from whom and by whom, and how data is interpreted and (re)presented is always a concern for research, but even more so when the "researched" are at the center of violent inter/national contests over power and resources. Because developments in the form, scale, and impact of violent conflict and the integration of education into crisis response efforts has occurred in recent years, much of the growing body of research on education and violent conflict is being conducted by a new generation of scholars and graduate students. This has serious implications for classical models of training in research methods for graduate students, as current and future scholars and practitioners. In addition, the increased constraints on academic freedoms at U.S. institutions of higher learning in recent years have created concerns for how research is conceptualized, interpreted and (re)presented by scholars whose careers are not yet secure, but whose research may well contribute to perpetuating dominant narratives, or the dehumanization or subjugation of particular voices, and thus the perpetuation of a violent status quo.

At present, there is very limited literature on methodological, ethical, and conceptual issues related to conducting social science research in such contexts, and yet a growing interest in doing so. As such, I have been engaged in my own work with scholars and practitioners concerned with developing frameworks for conceptualizing educational research during and after war, exploring the possibility for ethical guidelines, and understanding the practical impediments and safety considerations for research practice. A growing number of researchers representing various disciplines from around the world have joined this conversation. This emerging literature, which examines the methods of research practice and evaluation, has signaled the beginnings of the most recent trend in scholarship on education and violent conflict.

Research conducted during and after war requires an ethical research practice that places participants at the center of a dialogic research process. In order to do so, the researcher must be well-versed at vertical levels of the context, attentive to the process of power, and impeccably conscious of the impact of his or her actions and presence. We must be able to sit in the messiness of conflict, as Hager's contribution to this symposium suggests, in order to engender a mental shift in the ways in which we interact with the world. My own work in training Masters and Doctoral students at Teachers College, Columbia University, seeks to have them critically examine their positioning within in a matrix of power, as educators, scholars, development practitioners, and researchers. Among the unexamined privileges of many graduate students in the U.S. is the privilege of living in peace. I work with students to uncover the source of their personal sense of security and to locate their intentions, under the premise that the benevolent, yet unexamined mission, and ultimately, the research and practice that it fuels, is dangerous and has historically done more harm than good. As Sobe, Hager, and Jones suggest in this symposium, researchers must locate the institutions and nations they willingly or unwillingly represent in the matrix of power as well, and understand their historical and contemporary roles in contributing to the perpetuation of conflict. This life-long process is a significant aspect of continually refining our research knowledge.

Lack of attention to the process of power in educational initiatives (including those of the academy) often serves to contribute to conflict by promoting dominant narratives, such as the benevolent notion that education can end conflict ("…if people would just cooperate with reform efforts!"). As Bekerman, Chaux, and Sobe remind us in this symposium, this is not the case. Such beliefs, drawn from an "education-as-cure" perspective, imply an "educable" group—individuals requiring (re-)education in the normative values of peace, freedom, democracy, etc.—and programs to "educate" and "reform" them (as one student relayed to me about Iraqis and Afghanis, "They do not have peace because they do not want it."). These efforts mask domination under the guise of an unexamined peace, shifting attention away from the structural change required in order to interrupt violence in all its forms (including that perpetuated by the academy).

As Bekerman artfully renders in this symposium, the task of educators must be to move from a question of "what" to questions of "when" and "how" in order to situate and interrupt hegemonic narratives (p. 80). These include the discourse of "intractability" surrounding enduring conflicts, particularly those framed as religious or sectarian in nature. Such notions serve to limit our imagination for peace. Similarly, the task of research training must be to move the researcher to interrupt hegemonic narratives and democratize knowledge through his or her work. This cannot be achieved without a critical examination of power. If violence is the central problematic of education for and about peace, then the act of research on education and violent conflict, too, must historicize, rather than essentialize, in order to interrupt that violence and contribute to new understandings and possibilities. It is with these tasks that the editors of this symposium charge us in the conclusion of their introduction. The collection of articles serves as an excellent starting point for this critical reflection.

About the Author: Zeena Zakharia is lecturer in international and comparative education at Teachers College, Columbia University. She has over ten years of experience in educational development practice and research among diverse communities in the Middle East during and after violent political conflict.