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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.

Gaza: Cage Politics, Violence and Health

HaimYacobi4 December 2018

This blog is the second of the health in urban development blog series. View also:
Health in secondary urban centres: Insights from Karonga, Malawi

If you are interested in DPU’s new MSc in Health in Urban Development, more information can be found on our website.

“I’m like a bird in a cage”, told Shaheen in an interview to Al Jazeera as she lay in bed at Al-Rantisi hospital. “Outside of my cage I can see water and food, but I can’t reach it. This is my condition right now.” Shaheen suffers from breast cancer, her condition has been deteriorating ever since she was denied exit from Gaza for treatment. The Gaza Strip does not have adequate resources to provide her with appropriate treatment, yet she cannot leave, as Israeli authorities rejected her permit three times in a row without explanation. But this is not an anecdote – current data indicates that 54 Palestinians, including 46 cancer patients, died in 2017 after their requests for permits were delayed or refused.

Gaza, drawings by Gazan children, Photograph: Mohammed Baroud, Screen Photograph: Yoram Kuperminz

The case of Shaheen illustrates the ways in which health, death, life and space are entangled. It is not just about the crossing of the border between the Gaza strip and Israel, but also about being in a “cage”, an urban territory where electricity, clean water, sewage system and adequate housing which are basic conditions for ensuring a health – are absent. As already noted,  in 2017 more than 96 percent of groundwater is unfit for human consumption, and the forecast is that the damage would become irreversible by 2020; Due to chronic shortage in electricity operating pumps, there is a constant threat of raw sewage flooding residential areas. The beach areas of Gaza strip are polluted by more than a hundred million litres of raw sewage flowing into the sea every day. This matter was recently defined by Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights as a “TOXIC SLUM”, claiming that Gazans “…are… caged in a toxic slum from birth to death”, a ghetto of 1.9 million residents (50% under the age of 18) living in one of the most densely-populated places on earth.

The spatio-politics of health, death and life goes beyond the notion of necropolitics; it is not just about the use of social and political power to dictate how some people may live and how some must die as Achile Mbembe suggests; rather it is also about the spatial dimension of “cage politics”. Within this context I argue that spatial organisation determines the right to kill as defined by Foucault; blocking Gaza, isolating its habitants, controlling the goods that can enter the strip (such as food, construction materials etc). Yet the question is not whether the organisation of space and health are linked, but why is space organised, controlled and destructed in certain cases so as to protect the right to health; What are the ideological forces and the political processes that promote or hinder the organisation of space?

Gaza, Photograph: Khalil Hamra, Screen Photograph: Yoram Kuperminz

The conditions in Gaza are not the result of any natural disaster, neither the outcome of the last few months events along the border. Rather, I would suggest to see it within the context of settler colonial political history, which prioritises territorial and demographic control over basic rights. As already noted the establishment of settler colonialism is based on “the will of erasure”, or at least the “systematic containment” of the original inhabitants. First of all, the refugees: close to 70% of the Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip are refugees. Most of them ran away, or were expelled from villages, towns and cities that are part of the State of Israel today.

Since then, Israeli political discourse focuses on the idea that this problem would disappear by itself. Yet, as the last few months demonstrate this is not the case: Young Palestinians who are demonstrating at the border are the third and fourth generations of the original refugees, and they are willing to die for the right to return, reminding us that 1948 is still with us, waiting for a political (rather than military) answer. Indeed, links between health, death, life and cage politics should be understood within a wider context, where freedom of movement, access to public services and infrastructure, as well as freedom from pollution and environmental hazards, are obvious rights linked to space.

Gaza murals, Photograph: Mustafa Hassona, Screen Photograph: Yoram Kuperminz

Indeed, the case of Gaza illustrates the ways in which people who have been displaced experience “root shock” – the traumatic stress reaction to the loss of some or all of one’s emotional ecosystem. As the case of Gaza demonstrates, the very historical foundations of the root shock are the expelled of Palestinians after the 1948 war from Israel, the creation of the “refugees crisis” and the ongoing violence in the last few decades. Root shock is both personal and collective: on the individual level emotional trauma affect a person experiences when his or her environment is destroyed. It causes the risk for stress-related diseases like depression and diminishes social, emotional, and financial resources. Here, several reports point on the growing number of mental illness in Gaza, including a growing number of suicides.

Importantly this has also an effect on the community level; root shock is expressed by the loss of interpersonal ties that is vested in the collective connections and affect negatively a community resilience. A telling example is the aspect of the high rates of sexual assaults in Gaza resulted of the common addiction to Tramadol which is available in Gaza, and popularly traded as an illegal street-drug. According to Mansour, the Tramadol side-effects have an immense impact on the frequency of sexual assaults and other un-healthy sexual behaviours. In general, Mansour describes Gaza as a society in “a tremendous and accelerated disintegration” in which “people are losing their humanity”. Another aspect is gender-based violence. In 2016, more than 148,000 women were subjected to psychological and physical abuse. Studies show a link between violence against women and the worsening of living conditions. According to the UNFPA, ‘The structural, cyclical and hierarchal nature of violence… means women often become “shock-absorbers” of the crisis’ in Gaza.

To sum up, cage politics violence has two dimensions that affect health conditions in Gaza. Active violence stemming from direct military actions and explicit policy. This affects water supply, electricity, nutrition. It also causes a severe shortage of equipment, medicines (including antibiotics and morphium), and medical expertise. This, for example, means injured people with gunshot wounds to the legs are not always treated quickly, leading to amputation. But cage politics is also discursive, symbolic and implicit; this is expressed in the very de-humansing and demonising public discourse in Israel, that in turn justifies active state violence. A current example is the building of an underwater sea barrier that according to the Israelis aims to prevent Palestinian infiltrators from entering Israel by sea. The barrier will consist of three layers. The first will be below the water; the second will be made of stone; the third will be made of barbed wire. An additional fence will surround the sea fence. The effect of this project on Gaza is clear: fishing, mobility, health and economy is one side of it, but this also takes us back to the very argument presented today: cage politics of health, life and death are highly political and that access to water, electricity and services, or proximity to environmental hazards, are not neutral facts but rather the results of policy and violence.

 

Haim Yacobi is a Prof of Development Planning and the Programme Leader of the Health in Urban Development MSc Programme at the DPU. In his current research he focuses on the ways in which ideology, planning and health are entangled in conflict zones.

Cultura Negada: Reflecting on Racialised Urban Violence and Practices of Resistance in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil

FedericaRisi9 July 2018

Prominent academic debates around violence in the city most often seem to be concerned with how structural economic and political drivers codify violence into the urban space. To appropriate Harvey’s terminology, with how urbanisation by dispossession – in other words marginalisation – of urban groups contributes to increasing crime rates and gangs-related violence. It is only in recent decades that ‘institutional’ abuse  – perpetrated by police forces under the blind eye of the Hobbesian state – as well as more structural forms of selective and – most often –  race-based violence are confronted[1]. And yet as a category of analysis of the urban, violence emerges as a causally less linear and more nuanced construct.

Measurability of course is an issue and deserves being questioned. What indicators are taken into account when defining urban violence? What types of data are considered? Who collects them? How are they read and  disseminated? The action research conducted in Salvador, as part of the MSc Social Development Practice overseas field trip, has evidenced how municipal – and national – indexes reflecting increasing rates of homicides as related to organised-crime, robbery and drug trafficking overlook important aspects of the realities of violence lived everyday by vulnerable urban communities. Vulnerability on its end also warrant a discussion on methodology. Drawing from the Participatory Action Research (PAR) tradition in urban planning, vulnerability is here understood as socially (re)produced and as related to asset ownership (Moser, 1996; drawing on Sen, 1981) and the capacity to cope with shocks; whether environmental, economic, political or all of these combined.

In this blog series, I undress some reflections on how Salvador, the blackest city of Brazil, epitomises such a nuanced appreciation of how violence is urbanised, that is, how it becomes spatially codified in the city;  and in turn is itself an agent of urbanisation. Graffiti[2] is offered as an entry point for the analysis.

 

Aesthetics of inequality. View of Saramandaia, Salvador, Brazil.


In context..

The Bahian capital is a city of contrasts and embodies the clash between the gentrifying force of globalisation as it manifests in the built environment and locally grounded social action reclaiming identity as forgotten history. Identity as ethnicity. Identity as part of the rich African heritage of Brazil and its institutional neglecting. As Kwame Dixon (2016) aptly elucidates in his book Afro-Politics and Civil Society in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, the country abolished legal slavery in 1888, but provided no institutional mechanism to free former slaves from racial discrimination. Almost a hundred years later, when Brazil returned to democracy in the 1980s, burgeoning blocos afros[3], black social and political movements revendicating Afro-Diasporic consciousness emerged to seek racial justice and equality, to claim their ‘right to the city’ as a right to live and exist in the city.

 

Despite having one of the oldest and largest black populations of the Americas, Salvador has never elected a black mayor nor has the Bahian State chosen a black governor to date (Dixon, 2016). And, if urban violence seems to follow the racial and spatially confined pattern of poverty in the city, with residents of majority black, poverty-stricken neighbourhoods being more likely to be killed than their better-off, white neighbours (Chaves Viana et al, 2011; Huggings, 2004); institutional memory as well as public opinion as shaped by the media exert more intangible, narrative forms of violence on these vulnerable groups. These narrative forms of dispossessions become activating agents of citizenship and identity revindication from within the city.

“Minha Vida” – My Life. Graffiti in Barra District, Salvador, Brazil.


I wanted to talk about cultural syncretism, I ended up taking about violence…

It would be amiss to document and account for the richness and multitude of cultural manifestations in Salvador without engaging with how these are shaped by violence in the city, and how, in turn, they impinge on it.

A graffiti tour of Ladeira da Preguiça, literally “Slope of Laziness” helped vividly retrace the institutionalisation of racialised violence in Salvador. In the 17th century, the road, which historically connected the port area[1] (cidade baixa) to the upper city[2] (cidade alta), was used by African slaves to carry goods on their shoulders while being shouted at “to move faster” (Moreira, 2018). With the development of more easily accessible routes in modern[3] Salvador, the Ladeira and its people were abandoned by public power. The area, as a result of its narrow streets and vacant warehouses, slowly lent itself to organised crime and, most recently, to drug-trafficking.

In recent years, the stigma[1] of violence and insecurity –which is almost as damaging as violence itself– eventually provided the perfect justification for the municipality to push forward a privatisation project that was meant to regenerate –and gentrify– the area. Local moradores (“residents”), however, joined forces and, in 2013, collectively mobilised to rehabilitate the Ladeira, reconstructing collapsed mansions and painting decaying façades with colourful graffiti referencing the African Diaspora; exposing Brazil’s institutionalised culture of exclusion as a means to call for the city to remember and for reclaiming their housing rights. A vibrant cultural centre was founded by residents themselves, Centro Cultural “Que Ladeira é Essa?”, to breath a culture of resistance through art. By calling attention to Brazil’s rich African heritage, the centre offers classes of  capoeira, afro-samba dance and percussions as well as painting and graffiti workshops. Cultural offerings then become an element of aggregation, an instrument for articulating a powerful counter-narrative to deconstruct stereotypes.

To say that civic action is a reaction to violence would be simplistic and necessarily reductionist. Nevertheless, the tradition of survivalism through art and symbolism[2] has permeated the urbanisation of Salvador as emerging from the oppression and structural exclusion of black populations within the city (for a comprehensive analysis of the evolution of Brazilian popular culture read: Assunção, 2003).

 

Reflecting on causality

On the one hand, local practices of resistance rooted in the syncretism of Salvador’s condemned[3] neighbourhoods are an unapologetic expression of resistance to the stereotyping narrative of the city. A violent narrative of violence; one that lexically and imaginatively reduces majority black-afro-descendant communities to urban realities of degradation, crime, and carencias (“deprivations”) . A narrative that is reminiscent of colonial oppression and a revivified vehicle of neoliberal domination.

Capoeira dancer. Graffiti in Pelourinho.

 

On the other, it is precisely because of this concatenated cycle of oppression-marginalisation that non-white urban communities find themselves more exposed to violence stemming from their surrounding, built as well as non-built, environments.

 

In this direction, there is room for critical urban theory to expand its scope to explore how violence – and even more so the fear of it – shapes city making. In fact, if market forces and political discourses are key determining factors in the urbanisation of violence, in its physical as well as narrative manifestations, violence too influences how people (re-)claim the city, how they move inside the city, use collective spaces, build or adapt their houses.

 

Our co-investigation with local urban collectives and social movements in Salvador has revealed how urban violence and fear thereof shape the social production of urban habitats and community practices around culture, housing, use and production of collective space and mobility. Further considerations and findings from our field trip will be collated in a report produced with our partner, the research group Lugar Comum, and published in the coming autumn.

 

References

Assunção, M.R. (2003). “From Slave to Popular Culture: The Formation of Afro-Brazilian Art Forms in Nineteenth-Century Bahia and Rio de Janeiro”. Iberoamericana, Vol.3, No.12, pp.159-176.

Dixon, K. (2016). Afro-Politics and Civil Society in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil. University Press of Florida.

Huggings, M.K. (2000). “Urban Violence and Police Privatization in Brazil: Blended Invisibility”, Social Justice, Vol.27, No.2, Issue 80, Criminal Justice and Globalization at the New Millennium (Summer 2000), pp. 113-134.

Manco, T., Lost Art, and Neelon, C. (2005). Graffiti Brasil .Thames & Hudson: London.

Moreira, W (2018). Graffiti Tour, Ladeira da Preguiça. 09/05/2018.

Moser, C.O.N. (1996). “The asset vulnerability framework: Reassessing urban poverty reduction strategies”. World Development, Vol.26, No.1, January 1998, pp.1-19.

Moser, C.O.N. (2004). “Urban Violence and Insecurity: an Introductory Roadmap”. Environment and Urbanization, Vol.16, No.2, October 2004.

Resident. (2018). Interview. Graffiti Tour, Ladeira da Preguiça. 09/05/2018.

Sen, A. (1981). Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

 

Federica Risi is the Graduate Teaching Assistant of the MSc Social Development Practice. Herself a DPU graduate from the MSc Environment and Sustainable Development, Federica has experience in participatory action research focused on urban risks. She is also a Research Associate at the Pastoral Environmental Network in the Horn of Africa (PENHA), where she is conducting an investigation on South-South Cooperation between Peru, Brazil and the Horn region.

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[1] Residents reported that identifying as black and “saying you are from the Ladeira, it’s like admitting you are a criminal”, which “[…] stops you to get a job and continue education” (Resident, 09/05/2018).

[2] Capoeira  and Candomblé rituals for example, emerged as practice for African slaves to compensate for the loss of identity (Assunção, 2003, p.160).

[3] Carnival Blocks.

[4] In the sense of being publicly perceived as unsafe and rife with violence.

[5] Where Portuguese ships would arrive to deliver materials and goods, historically, the part of the city dedicated to commercial activities.

[6] Here, were established the main government offices and churches; also where the aristocracy resided.

[7] Referring to the end of Portuguese colonial domination and Brazil’s independence in 1822.

[8] In the October 2004 No.2 Issue Vol.16 of Environment and Urbanization, with the article ‘Urban Violence and Insecurity: an Introductory Roadmap’,  Caroline O.N. Moser draws on Galtung to extend the notion of violence as going “beyond situations of overt brutality to include more implicit forms such as exploitation, exclusion, inequality and injustice” (p.6). In this sense “…violence [can be] built into the structure [of society,] …show[ing] up as unequal power and consequently as unequal life chances” (Galtung, 1969 cited in Moser, 2004, p.6).

[9] Drawings and writings scribbled or painted through a variety of techniques on public walls; “a vehicle for [the excluded] of the city to assert their existence and self-worth, and to do it loudly” (Manco et al., 2005).