[How do we “know” the world Series] Preventing War. Shaping Peace? Epistemic Violence and Conflict Studies

by Franziska Sopha

Working on questions of violence and violent conflict in International Relations has turned out to be a deeply confusing and sometimes daunting undertaking for me, especially after my last experience as a research assistant in Dakar, Senegal. I was working for International Crisis Group, a self-designated “independent organisation working to prevent wars and shape policies that will build a more peaceful world”. Based on local and international press and reports, interviews with local contact persons and statistics, I wrote reports and commentaries on security related issues in different West African countries. Very often I wondered: who was I to come from France and (re)produce knowledge on violent attacks in Mali, Boko Haram in Nigeria or elections in Sierra Leone and to present this knowledge as a portrayal of the current circumstances in a country that I had never been to, knowing that my work would be used to justify and legitimate political action by certain powerful actors.

An infinite number of questions and thoughts started popping up in my head concerning not only my personal legitimacy as a researcher, but also about the more general role of conflict studies within today’s power relations and violence itself. To grasp this intellectual struggle and unease, I tried to better understand the strong interdependence(s) of knowledge, power and violence and to see the (un)conscious assumptions about reality, about truth and alleged objectivity that were decisive for my research perspective, its focus and methodology.

The structuration of a discourse – be it academic or not – is very often the result of a power struggle and rivalry, automatically leading to a certain disciplinarisation of knowledge. A dominant discourse can itself be considered an element of violence as it silences the “other” discourse(s) that are often considered not “true”, not “scientific” or not “relevant” enough, criteria that have been established within and by the dominant discourse itself. For example, when reacting to deadly incidents and designating them as “terror attacks”, this designation excludes automatically all other forms of interpretation and delegitimizes the action by neglecting any possible political motive. It demonstrates the monopoly of interpretation of a dominant discourse within a system of knowledge. This important element of ideology inherent in any system of knowledge, as well as the individual and collective implication in intellectual and economic history is systematically neglected in research on conflict and violence, and a certain epistemology imposed as universal.

This “universal” epistemology defines the limitations of research itself, its object, perspective, methodology as well as the profile of a possible researcher. During my time in Dakar, it was revealing for me to see how research was organized, where the researchers came from, how they had been educated, what kind of sources, data and media they used and which language(s) they spoke. I started to understand how, through a concentration of resources and actors, dominant English- and French speaking organizations, media, archives and agencies enjoy a monopoly in the production of knowledge about conflict in certain regions and contribute to a great extent to the shaping of objects of research.

As Claudia Brunner puts it, epistemic violence can be understood as “the very contribution to violent societal conditions that is rooted in knowledge itself: in its formation, shape, set-up, and effectiveness. […] Epistemic violence is deeply embedded in our knowledge as well as in the ways [on] which we strive towards it.” (Claudia Brunner 2015). It is an omnipresent dimension of any system of knowledge and consequently inherent in the way knowledge is produced and mobilized. The notion of epistemic violence includes epistemological, theoretical, conceptual, methodological as well as political, institutional and economic dimensions on the sociology of knowledge.

For Conflict Studies, this means that today’s dominant euro-centric study of war and conflict in International Relations is far from being the one and only “truth” that may lead to “peace”, but rather the result of underlying assumptions about “reality”, deeply marked by the coloniality of power and knowledge. It is normalizing and legitimizing some forms of direct and indirect violence by discrediting others and incorporates enlightenment’s premises such as modernity and progress which actually need to be understood not as part of the solution, but rather as a constituent part of the problem itself.

Consequently, it is crucial for peace and conflict studies today to see that political and social inequality, preceded and followed by different forms of violence, is rooted in knowledge itself. It is this knowledge, its formation shape, set-up and effectiveness that needs to be taken into account and be included in any critical conflict studies to overcome the coloniality of power and knowledge. And the most urgent question concerning this vicious circle of power and knowledge remains of the utmost topicality: how exactly can we break it? Even if this can only be the beginning of long and difficult intellectual journey, it is crucial not only for academia, but also for international organisations and think tanks, such as International Crisis Group to question their own role within this vicious circle of knowledge and violence.

Franziska Sopha studied Conflict and Development Studies at the University of Münster and SciencesPo Lille. She has worked for different think tanks in Brussels and Dakar and is currently based in Lome.

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