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The Better to Break and Bleed with: On Research, Violence, and Trauma

ArianaMarkowitz19 December 2018

NB: This post contains graphic content.

In March 2018, I interviewed a Salvadoran artist who lives in the United States about his work on violence. As we discussed a project, he recounted seeing the body of a teenage girl that had been disinterred, raped, and left on the ground of the cemetery where she had been buried the previous day. “I remember the colour of her dress, the texture of the fluids on her body,” he told me. There was an anguished pause. “I’ve only told my partner, a friend, and you. It’s been years and I still see her.”

El Salvador is one of the most violent countries on earth, so I knew going in that I would be speaking with people who have experienced trauma about that trauma. Unlike a mental health professional or a faith leader, however, I entered these conversations for information, not to directly support recovery and healing. Fearful that my questions could cause harm, I sought guidance from friends who work with asylum seekers and survivors of sexual assault. Despite that preparation, I still struggled to respond to the artist in the moment, shunting aside my own reactions to ensure that he felt heard and that our conversation remained centred on him. Afterwards, overwhelmed with disgust and unease, I told myself that what the artist described had to be an aberration—an exceptionally violent incident, even in an exceptionally violent place.

But then, in the following weeks, I heard versions of the same story about different bodies in different places from different people. I came to understand that these stories were more about tactics than necrophilia: Salvadoran gangs use the rape of a corpse to taunt or exact revenge upon the family and community of the victim, tainting and deforming their grief and ratcheting up the ongoing conflicts amongst the gangs, and between the gangs and the Salvadoran state. A play I saw in San Salvador depicted this tactic, though I failed to recognize it for what it was, assuming the victim was drugged or unconscious. Now, months later, I was realizing that the rest of the audience, for whom this violence was part of their reality, did not make the same mistake.

All of this heightened my awareness of and sensibility to violence, and the more time I spent in the field, the more the stories and images of violence piled up. I had nightmares that turned into sleepless nights, and despite being exhausted I remained unable to rest. I took impulsive decisions to regain some agency amidst circumstances that felt beyond my control. Normally an extrovert, I often preferred to be alone, and apart from an occasional thrill of warmth or wonder, the luster of the world around me faded.

My agitation pursued me back to London where I took two months off. Once I tried to watch a film to distract myself, but the film’s negative foreshadowing unsettled me and I had an agonizing night struggling to keep my mounting panic at bay. When I got my hair cut, the stylist commented that my hair had grown during the months I was away and asked how my trip went. Without meaning or wanting to, a torrent of horrific stories streamed out of me. I watched people’s eyes widen behind me in the mirror.

Other academics and practitioners who work on similar topics reassure me that all of this is par for the course. I have heard about nightmares, insomnia, compulsive exercise, benders of all kinds, addiction, and the straining and splitting of relationships with friends, relatives, and lovers. Some people abandoned researching violence altogether, with one explaining simply that, “The work damaged my spirit.”

Despite the prevalence of trauma in the field, however, I received little formal guidance related to research challenges in violent contexts prior to beginning my fieldwork. Throughout the world, university ethics protocols for all disciplines draw primarily from biomedical research that prioritizes physical over mental harm and research participants over the researcher. To that effect, I was asked to consider earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, mosquito-borne illnesses, crime, and more, and I wrote thousands of words about them in my risk assessment because they were valid concerns that I needed to take into account. I also read Salvadoran legislation on data protection, determined that the GDPR was more robust, and spelled out the measures I would take to protect my research participants’ personal information, per GDPR requirements. I sought advice from friends on how to talk about trauma because I identified it as a crucial skillset that I needed and lacked, not because an ethics committee alerted me to my potential for inflicting mental or emotional harm on my participants.

Social science methodology literature likewise comes up short in this regard. Most often, texts discussing research about violence neglect to mention the researcher at all, treating us as just the instruments for doing research. More reflexive pieces tend to focus on four topics: the ethics of working with victims and victimizers, difficulties accessing people and places, the absence or unreliability of data, and threats to researchers’ physical health and safety. As with the concerns above, these topics pose real challenges to the successful undertaking of fieldwork and merit serious debate and consideration.

But none of that illuminated any path that I could see towards feeling whole again, returning to the field, and finishing my work. Eventually, finally, I came across work that addressed the gaps. The scholars who produce it, most of whom are anthropologists, contend that shame around mental health in general, and concerns about bias and subjectivity in academia in particular, silence our ability to engage with what we see, hear, do, and feel as we gather information. More progressive criticism faults researchers for focusing on ourselves while the people we study are the ones who are actually suffering. Plus, unlike the privileged researcher, our participants may have few avenues to alter their circumstances.

Humility, perspective, prudence, and grit are essential in this type of work, but they do not change the fact that researching violence implies experiencing it. Breaking the silence around researcher trauma, rather than being unscientific or self-indulgent, permits clarity in the theories, concepts, and methods we develop to make sense of violence as a social phenomenon.

In January I am organizing a workshop at UCL called “Fortify and Heal: Researching Sensitive Topics and Violent Places” that will be the starting point for a collective process of seeking and finding guidance and support. The workshop will bring together students and staff for sessions on defining and managing trauma, supervising sensitive and violent research, and recalibrating risk and ethics protocols. Many researchers lament the external barriers to researching violence—earlier this year a charity rejected my funding application because “the successful candidates are carrying out less risky fieldwork”—so this is an opportunity to explore our individual and collective needs and how our institutions’ can comply with their duty to care such that more people, not fewer, feel able to research violence. Outside scholars will facilitate each session so that our ideas and debates reverberate around other campuses.

Jeff Hearn, who studies men and masculinities, writes about finding a paradoxical positiveness in violence from the possibility of change to non-violence. Engaging with our trauma—bracing ourselves, finding comfort, rejuvenating each other—is a first step.

“Fortify and Heal” will take place at UCL on Tuesday 8 and Wednesday 9 January 2019 from 14:00 to 17:00 each day. For more information or to attend any or all sessions, please contact Ariana at ariana.markowitz.15@ucl.ac.uk by Sunday 6 January 2019.

Ariana is a PhD student at DPU researching how fear and trauma manifest and become defining parts of urban landscapes. Taking cues from this damage, especially in marginalized communities, she looks for alternative ways of repairing frayed social fabric and healing.

The knot at the end of the rope: Violence, hope, and transformation in El Salvador and Mexico

ArianaMarkowitz11 December 2018

I spent an afternoon in August with a group of young men in a skate park on the outskirts of San Salvador, El Salvador. The park was part of a larger recreational complex and more people drifted in as the hours passed. The day was stifling and even if shade in the park was limited, at least sometimes there was a breeze in the air, unlike inside the low-income housing blocks that ringed the park and the shacks that climbed up the surrounding streets, splintering into a labyrinth of dead-end alleys.

The young men in the skate park told me story after story about police and gang brutality. At one point I asked them to draw a picture of a place or a situation in which they felt unsafe, uncomfortable, or anxious and another place or situation where they felt the opposite. One person stared at a blank piece of paper for 10 minutes, unable to think of any time or place where he had ever felt safe. Another drew an imaginary safe place where there were no abuses of power, people interacted as equals, homes were dignified, and greenery was abundant. After leaving the park later that day, a taxi driver told me about almost joining a gang some 15 years earlier, but changing his mind at the last minute based on the somber regrets of someone who had decided to go through with it. Later that night on my way home, I saw a body on the street. No one stopped and when I slowed down to get a closer look, my car was almost hit from behind.

A drawing produced by one of the young men in the skate park. In his words, “What makes me feel unsafe, uncomfortable, or anxious is the police, corruption, murders, and interpersonal violence.”

This situation is part of what is driving Central Americans, especially from the so-called ‘Northern Triangle’ countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, to flee, seeking a better life or, in some cases, a life at all in the United States. More and more the migrants and displaced people are traveling in mass because most of their journey is through Mexico and the Mexican state has repeatedly demonstrated its unwillingness or inability to protect asylum seekers’ human rights, leaving them vulnerable to opportunistic people and cartel violence while they travel, often with babies and children in tow. The poor treatment of migrants and displaced people is an extension of the Mexican state’s similar unwillingness or inability to protect Mexican citizens’ human rights. Nearly 250,000 Mexicans have been killed in the last 10 years and there are more disappearances now in Mexico than there were under the dictatorships in South America, including the still unresolved case of 43 students disappearing in 2014, apparently at the hands of state security agents with assistance from organized criminal groups under the protection of military forces. Just like I saw in El Salvador, poverty in Mexico is both a driver and a result of violence, and decades of repeated abuses have corroded Mexicans’ confidence in each other and in their government. Several years ago when I was documenting police reform in Mexico, I was struck by how government insiders and partners recalled processes that were difficult but ultimately successful while outsiders saw failures and suspected conspiracies.

Amidst so much darkness, DPU’s Étienne von Bertrab has opted to look for light. A few years ago he began developing what is now Albora, an initiative that traces Mexico’s “geographies of hope” through identifying, studying, documenting, and showcasing transformative projects throughout the country. Spotlighting this work demonstrates the that there are other ways to develop, progress, and grow, ones in which no one mistakes violence for a solution, where access to water and other natural resources is universal, where citizens are informed and engaged, and where everyone strives for the greater good.

Luis Domínguez, an engineer working for Agua para Siempre, has dedicated decades of his life to assisting communities fight soil erosion and restore river basins in the impoverished Mixteca region.

One such project is Agua para Siempre (‘water forever’), established 30 years ago by a then young couple, who decided that they would defend and support their poorest compatriots. They landed in the Sierra Mixteca in the Mexican state of Puebla, an arid and fast-eroding area that had been and continued to be hollowed out because of migration to large Mexican cities and the United States. With time, the couple understood that access to water was fundamental to addressing poverty and migration, so they began to study pre-Hispanic methods for soil retention and cultivation and advocate for their re-adoption in surrounding communities. Today, their organization, Alternativas y Procesos de Participación Social, AC (‘alternatives and social participation processes’), has 300 people and thousands of local partners who are seeing the fruits of their sustained efforts. Communities are beginning to have access to water all year for small-scale cultivation, animal husbandry, and human consumption, and hundreds of small cooperatives have begun to produce amaranth, a pre-Columbian pseudo-grain that, like quinoa, is high in protein, vitamins, and minerals. Reversing previous trends, migration is falling, as is child malnutrition, thanks to the inclusion of amaranth in local diets.

The search for transformative initiatives also brought the Albora team, which includes five DPU alumni, to Mexico City where a Mexican historian and novelist, his family, and a dozen others have formed the Brigada para Leer en Libertad (‘brigade to read in freedom’). The brigade has cultivated new readers through facilitating horizontal and informal access to authors, expanding the availability of books, and creating free places to read. So far, they have gifted or sold more than a million books at an affordable price to girls, boys, women, and men in a country where the high price of books makes bookstores elitist and inaccessible and public libraries are few. To that end, the brigade also establishes libraries, with a recent campaign resulting in the donation of nearly 70,000 books. These books have become the basis for carefully curated collections in formerly empty libraries in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. The brigade promotes reading for pleasure but also as a political act—an essential step towards the full exercise of conscious citizenship.

Free public gatherings are central to the Brigada’s book fairs in which women, men and children engage in dialogues with authors about their work and about the Mexican political conjuncture and ways out of the crises.

These projects and others are harnessing the power of hope to fuel alternative visions of their society. They demonstrate the fundamental importance of restoring and cultivating hope, necessary for active citizenship, and united, powerful communities, not just in Mexico or El Salvador but everywhere where injustice and inequality construct blocks for us to stumble over. The projects challenge us to look beyond our cynicism and apathy.

Before I left the skate park in August, one young man told me that he was glad I had come. “Most people don’t come looking for us, and the people who do don’t listen to what we have to say,” he said. “I hope you’ve been able to hear us and that the stories of our lives help you do your work.”

To learn more about Albora and contribute to its crowdfunding campaign, active until Tuesday, 18 December and only funded if it reaches 100% of its goal, go here.

Ariana Markowitz is a PhD student at DPU researching how fear and trauma manifest and become defining characteristics of urban landscapes. Taking cues from this damage, especially in marginalized communities, she looks for alternative ways of repairing frayed social fabric and healing.