Can Identities Positively Transform Societies?
Theoretical and Methodological Challenges and Solutions

Thank you to all those who contributed to this workshop. A summary of discussions on day two follows.

OICD Workshop: Can Identities Positively Transform Societies? Aga Khan, 8-9/10/2018

On day two of the workshop, three roundtable panels extended issues addressed in the presentations and discussions of day one (these presentations are listed at the bottom of this page). These discussions explored the application of relevant approaches to problems of conflict transformation, mediation and management. Invited panelists were experts in their field who were each asked to provide a brief summary of the implications of the relevant panel discussion topic within the context of their academic, regional or practitioner context. The roundtable discussions took account of theoretical and practical challenges, identifying problems and limitations but also flagging up possible solutions and ways forward. Panelists responded to the following themes and questions. A summary of these discussions follows.

PANEL DISCUSSION #1 Researching and Analysing Identities in the Field
What are the challenges of collecting data relevant to identity? How do we analyse the data once it is there? What kind of outcomes of should identity research and analysis aim for or expect?

PANEL DISCUSSION #2 Formulating Intervention Strategy and Implementation Design
Once we have reliable research and analysis on identity-based dynamics, how do we turn that into a useful intervention strategy and design? What are the limitations? What are the opportunities?

PANEL DISCUSSION #3 Operationalising and Evaluating Interventions
What kind of intervention platforms and approaches work best in the real world? How do we get buy-in for these with stakeholders? How do we evaluate the effectiveness of interventions and demonstrate value for money and value of approach?

Researching and analysing identities in the field:

(Notes taken from Can Identities positively transform societies Discussion session, Aga Khan, Day 2, 09/10/2018, by Luke Reilly)

What are the challenges of collecting data relevant to identity? How do we analyse the data once it is there? What kind of outcomes of should identity research and analysis aim for or expect?

Emphasising the value of long term Ethnographic research:

  • Able to reveal insights that are only identifiable over time; views identity as a process not an output
  • Avoids mistakes/errors in research; the risk that researchers may place too much or too little emphasis on cultural practice
  • EG Steve Lyon discussing his experiences in Pakistan, his familiarity with the cultural context over time allowed him to discern that the Khomi classification was only influential within specific contexts such as Marriage
  • So, ethnography reveals the value of implicit knowledge, familiarity with the complexity and nuance of the local culture
  • Value of ethnography derives from empathy which is especially important for solving conflict as it allows us to understand the cultural idioms/historical grievances that inform hatred towards a group
  • Theoretical/Literature LINK; Jon Holtzmann’s book Killing your Neighbours tried to understand the causes of tribal violence between the Kikuyu and Samburu in Kenya by taking both sides, understanding both perspectives

Opportunity: could ethnography be utilised more regularly as a resource for NGOs working in conflict resolution?

  • Avoids the risk of over exaggerating cultural idioms/expressions, avoids the potential risks that come from ignorant, ill-informed and short term orientated interventions and/or research
  • EG- Saachi & Saachi intervention into Kosovo, misguided attempt to foster Kosovan national cohesion post Balkans war

Question: at what levels are informants conscious of their own cultural practices/identity expressions?

  • Locals often do not know why they do the things they do (partake in cultural practices/habits/customs) any more than the researcher
  • Explanation for the origins/functions of their cultural practices are often ‘folk’ and resemble just so stories
  • Theoretical LINK- Bourdieu’s theory of Habitus, demonstrates how cultural practices can become unconscious/instinctive/second nature EG- handshakes
  • This validates the necessity of Ethnography; the presence of an outsider can give a cultural context a perspective that a person within that context is potentially incapable of taking
  • There is a value to being the native outsider, the other; unfamiliarity makes you ask questions and reveals insight

Question: How can ethnographers misrepresent the cultural reality through the questions they ask?

  • The presence of outsiders/researchers can often emphasize/exaggerate/fossilize cultural phenomena in a way that sends shockwaves through the society
  • EG- Homosexuality and Bisexuality in Beirut was previously socially tolerated but only as a marginalised practice away from the public eye
  • Once Beirut homosexuals/bisexuals began to identify as gay/queer/LGBT, drawing inspiration from the ‘gay international’ narrative, problems/fissures appeared within Beirut society
  • Shows how any external influence can force a previously ambiguous, silent social category to be cemented and fixed in a way that creates backlash
  • Research projects an identity on people which may not capture the reality; impossibility of the objective and silence can be powerful

Identities are situational/contextual, individuals are often provoked to identify as something or demonstrate their cultural background and therefore their identity

  • EG- Handshake metaphor; through this exchange you are literally force to demonstrate which cultural context you are a member of/identify with

Data Collection: recommending the multivariate analysis, emphasising the need to embrace data collection methods that can deal with nuance and complexity

Question: what cultural elements are being used to weaponize identity? How is this countered?

  • Do you counter weaponization by using/drawing on the same elements? Or do you introduce new elements? What is more effective?
  • EG- if social media is used to spread weaponization, should an NGO disseminate counter narratives through social media as well?
  • Problem of access; how do you access those being manipulated down closed identity pathways? If people are being radicalised online, how do you reach them?
  • Problematized by algorithms ect…

Clarify Elements: what are the elements that can be used as a source of weaponization?

  • Can a life story be an element?
  • The narration of a life story reveals the key cultural concepts that an individual draws on to build themselves as a cultured being in the world

Importance of collaboration: if two researchers collect life stories then those stories could differ based on the positionality (gender, ethnicity, culture, age, experience, personality) of the researcher

  • So, different researchers may need to collect the same information from the exact same informants
  • Informants should relate the same information to a male/female/foreign/local researcher EG- a hutu researcher in Rwanda would get very different information compared to a Western researcher
  • Emphasizes the theme of the Co-production of knowledge; all knowledge must be produced reciprocally between researchers and informants

Cultural identity, weaponization is all linked to feeling safe; theme of security

  • Could we further explore this identity-security linkage?

Art as a research vehicle; a way of understanding political/identity conflicts and forming a solution simultaneously:

  • Art is already a local form of intervention in process, perhaps all a researcher needs to do is simply understand and tap into the process
  • Art reveal a lot about how an informant situated in a conflict experiences, reflects upon and addresses their situation
  • Allows bottom up analysis rather than reductive top down political analysis

How can the arts be used to gather information?

  • Discussion on the emerging field of peace-building and art
  • Focused around the ‘de-centring’ that occurs when people enter a creative flow
  • It is difficult, however, to track the impact of the artistic intervention and assess the long term effect.

Question: how does self-identification change through the creative/artistic process? How do people realise self through creativity? How is creativity therapeutic?

  • Theoretical Link- Steven Streets ‘Music and Politics’, jihadi Culture Book shows how art is used by jihadists
  • PhD thesis; (couldn’t catch name of author) use of music by Hamas and Hezbollah, how it is used in meetings, rallies, studio recordings, revealing the pressure/demand placed on the artists,

Weaponizing art: Nile Project; a multinational band that plays on the Nile and raises awareness about political problems/conflicts in the Nile basin,

  • Art as something shared, a means of fostering understanding dialogue, understanding and therefore countering weaponization

Problem: is there an issue with the implications behind the term ‘Weaponizing art’?

  • Artists often don’t want their work to be operationalised.
  • Should be wary of the potential for art to be a means of manipulating people down radical, closed identity pathways. It can unite but also divide
  • Also, art is often better when the artists are given more freedom.
  • Perhaps makes the message better because any progressive, anti-conflict themes within artworks will be subtler and allow people to reach their own, reducing the risk of crude/sentimental artistic interventions that create backlash
  • Perhaps we should be harnessing nor weaponizing art?
  • But there is danger in this too; good art can have negative societal effects EG- Nazi propaganda, anti-Muslim country music
  • Undeniably very powerful; social impact of American Television normalising gay characters of black people in positions of authority onscreen EG- Will & Grace

Could researchers utilize sport in the same way they utilize art? A way of understanding the tensions within cultural contexts.

  • EG Gezi park protests against the Turkish Government, a large group of football hooligans turned up to oppose the government, formation of the far-right Football Lads Alliance in the UK

Opportunity: could we do a discourse analysis of propaganda?

  • By analysing the artforms that are weaponized in order to divide people, a researcher can pull back and reveal the idioms/identifiers/symbols that are used to create division and conflict. Then they can address these elements

How does a researcher deal with the ability of identity (principles, ideals, beliefs) to undergo massive and rapid change? How can an intervention account for that?

  • Can we study cognitive dissonance? (EG- off season Jihadis smoking weed in the cinema) Can we study the slippage of people’s identity?
  • Identity is constantly moving and changing, but where/when/why does it assert itself violently under certain conditions? When is an identity triggered?

How much info to we need in order to build a meaningful strategy that addresses conflict? When should the information flow stop?

Social Media; can this be used to analyse the source of conflict, the core grievance (land, economic, revenge, trauma)

  • Twitter can provide a very important hint, a way into the context, problem of whether informants are genuine, a resource to track information/exchange of concepts

how can ethnographic research not only identify the causes of manipulation/conflict/ division but also study peace? How do they pinpoint what elements/factors lead to and create Peace?

Idea of conflict becoming a routine; war becoming normalised

Does ethnographic analysis risk emphasising symbolic/cultural reasons for conflict over simpler material/logical reason? Does it risk collapsing the distinction between leaders and foot soldiers, manipulators and the manipulated

  • EG- Young Nigerian men who said they fought for Boko Haram because they were paid; the only source of income in an otherwise deprived/marginalised region
  • Vulnerability of bored, disillusioned young men to radicalisation and militarism within contexts of dysfunction and poverty
  • Is conflict symbolic? Is it caused by ideology, identity, cultural factors? Or is conflict functional? Is it caused by dysfunctional states, land insecurity, poverty
  • EG- banlieue youth in France use Islam as a means of fighting what they perceive to be a racist, western, colonial society that keeps them economically marginalised
  • So, Islam is the symbolic tool they use but the cause of their grievance is ultimately material

Post Lunch

Formulating intervention strategy and Implementation design:

(Notes taken from Can Identities Positively Transform Societies Discussion Session, Aga Khan, Day 2, 09/10/2018 by Luke Reilly)

Once we have reliable research and analysis on identity-based dynamics, how do we turn that into a useful intervention strategy and design? What are the limitations? What are the opportunities?

Question: How can we use the material gathered in the field to create a methodology that addresses the causes of conflict and division within a society?

  • what comes first; the design/intervention or the research?

Could you start with an intervention/methodology which then guides research?

  • Must be cautious with this; could force researchers down strict, limiting research pathways

Importance of the co-production of research knowledge; research has to be co-developed with local knowledge because locals will intuitively know what intervention will be appropriate for the context

  • Must be wary that there are power imbalances in research and be willing to admit when an organisation’s intervention/research was misguided
  • The researcher has a lot more power than informants or local researchers which could affect the way knowledge is collected and used
  • EG- Locals may act differently around researchers; tell them what they think they want to hear not what is actually happening

Question: the category of the ‘Local’ person is a convenient fiction in many ways; there are so many disagreements, complexities, tensions within the cultural context/population being researched

  • So, research has to be continual; constantly recognising and adapting to change
  • How do you build this into your design? Can you create a methodology that adapts to change?

Solutions: this requires a constant reappraisal of interventions

  • Analysis, research and tools must always be tested and verified, perhaps the principles of marketing can be applied to intervention strategies
  • EG- use of focus groups, pilot projects in order to test something in a smaller geographical area then upscale it
  • PROBLEM- this has to be done sensitively, can’t just use a region/context as eternal guinea pigs, failed pilot projects aggravate locals

Solution: entry point strategies to be neutral to avoid controversy and political division

  • Clarify commitment of OICD; are we utilising and introducing NEW narratives to counter existing manipulations or expanding those existing narratives?

Opportunity: could OICD perform a power analysis of the local context and the intervening project/organisation?

  • Actually study the potential unwanted harmful impacts of an intervention in relation to the power imbalances created by an NGO presence

Question: what is OICDs role within a conflict zone? Is it independent, is it neutral? Or is it trying to organize the actors/organisations already operating in the region who are on the ground?

  • Is it attempting to cooperate and harmonise with these existing initiatives?
  • What is the nature of conflict the conflict that OICD is intervening in? Post conflict contexts or pre-emptive interventions in potential conflicts?
  • At what scale of conflict can OICD be effective?

Theme: ‘Do No Harm’; must be aware of the danger of interventions that could end up doing more harm than good

  • EG- Conciliation Resources work with ex combatant leaders in Bougainville
  • They give former warlords confidence to work as peacetime community leaders
  • This is potentially extremely dangerous because of they may have vested interests, could create more division, aggravate locals and other warlords still holding onto wartime grievances ect…
  • ‘Backlash’ can be considered a form of harm

Example of Harm: the ‘Newborn’ campaign in Kosovo, funded by Saatchi & Saatchi was an attempt to foster a narrative of national cohesion and harmony in the newly independent Kosovan State:

  • Saatchi hired an Israeli company in a Muslim majority country immediately causing tension
  • They decided to place symbols on the uniforms of police officers which were identical to the symbols of Serbian militias who had committed atrocities against Kosovans
  • Made Kosovans very sceptical of forms of top-down, foreign intervention
  • Saatchi & Saatchi essentially created a close identity narrative that marginalised certain groups rather than opening up access to a diverse potential of narratives

A subtler example of Harm: have research and policy intervention into addressing the problem of Islamophobia within Western European country’s possibly done more harm? Why?

  • It only serves to make Muslims more visible and present, it has fossilised and cemented ‘Muslimness’ as a distinct social category within Western Europe
  • A continual narrative of harmony that depicts Muslims as ‘the good guys’ ends up empowering Islamophobia by creating a counter narrative; backlash
  • Again, silence can be powerful, more ambiguity around Islam would give xenophobic, far-right groups a less distinct category to attack
  • But there are improvements; there is more knowledge about Islam even amongst right wingers as they have become educated in order to avoid appearing racist

Opportunity: Can we use Journalism to steer popular opinion away from issues that may cause huge tension?

  • EG Indus waters dispute between India and Pakistan example; tried to get the media to focus on more positive stories or display the dispute in a positive manner
  • Would this be considered an example of opening up access to more identity narratives? Or just another form of manipulation?
  • A short term solution that risks backlash?

Question: are we being too cautious about avoiding backlash? Sometimes a completely new narrative on a conflict can be the radical, ‘fresh start’ that a society needs:

  • EG- the narrative of a political Palestinian-Jordanian band based in London whose music addresses the struggle against the Israelis
  • They don’t care about historical/cultural narratives, they are not addressing the problem from the perspective of historical injustice or Arab Nationalism

They haver songs are about having to constantly post online following an outbreak of violence to let friends know they are alive, becoming very popular with Palestinian youth

  • Their message/narrative is “we just want to live”, ‘we put the past behind us, let’s try a new approach’; shows the power of utilising a new starting position

Lessons from Imagine Africa’s successful intervention into the Casamance succession conflict, Senegal:

  • 1) Must utilise the traditional, culturally specific peace making mechanisms that are already present in the region EG- female priestesses had a lot of power and could
  • 2) Be aware of the ‘spoilers’;  those who have vested interests in keeping the conflict ongoing EG- the Senegalese Army were making money out of the conflict so Pierre included a former general and whistle blower in his peace-making team
  • 3) Must address the narratives and understand the secessionist movement from the Casamance perspective. How did the secessionist narrative start? The independence movement claim that the region is historically separate from Senegal, formerly a Portuguese colony
  • The peacemakers introduced a new narrative that drew on colonial history and claimed Senegal did not exist until independence, before it was a colony and therefore not a free nation state
  • This allowed the secessionists to explore what they meant by independence; what did this identity mean to them? What were their grievances? Allowed them to define the content of the Casamance independence claim
  • Discovered it came to down a sense of feeling marginalised; didn’t feel included by the Senegalese state, didn’t feel loved, wanted justice and self-determination

Question: how can you tell an Honest broker from a Spoiler? Requires us to define and determine honest brokers

  • This requires a neutral guiding framework, necessities amore general, universalizable core principle
  • EG- ‘Peace’, ‘Stability’ rather than, going back to the Casamance example, independence
  • Independence is not necessarily the solution as South Sudan has shown

Question: need to more clearly define the source of the oppositional, grievance narrative that is causing conflict. Must break it down to the individual level; where is it coming from?

  • Is it peer group/family/father/mother? At what emotional level do they receive the narrative and, therefore, how attached are they to the narrative?
  • EG- Northern Ireland; if a young Irish republican guerrilla heard the narrative from his father, it might be much harder to convince him to abandon the narrative and change his views.
  • So, how do you disinvest individuals from a narrative? This requires a pinpointed analysis, a depth of narrative analysis that reveals the origins.

Late Afternoon

Operationalising and evaluating interventions:

 (Notes taken from Can Identities positively transform societies? Discussion session, Aga Khan, Day 2, 09/10/2018, by Luke Reilly)

What kind of intervention platforms and approaches work best in the real world? How do we get buy-in for these with stakeholders? How do we evaluate the effectiveness of interventions and demonstrate value for money and value of approach?

Discussion of Artistic interventions into contexts of ethnic and cultural tension:

  • Landay poetry project among Afghani migrants in Norway; improvised, Haiku style of poetry that is very transgressive, political and involves women
  • Norwegian based Afghans are trying to preserve the texts as well as teach children how to create and collect Landay poetry.
  • The children are coached by a professional actor to create performances attended by both Afghani migrants and Norwegians.
  • Counters certain xenophobic narratives that dehumanises Afghan immigrants as sources of extremism.
  • Hoping to translate the Landay poetry into Norwegian, publish it in books, put it on radio shows and export the knowledge to other diasporic Afghan populations within Western nation states.
  • Disarmament campaign that is Humanising the ‘other’ through art

Other examples:

  • 1) Lantern project; Japanese lanterns are brought to schools in the North East of England and the students are introduced to Japanese culture
  • 2) Carefully selected Syrian refugees being taken into schools in Greece to portray their culture in a positive way and counter racist, xenophobic narratives
  • 3) Use of boardgames in the Indus region, Myanmar; a region where a diverse range of ethnic/cultural groups are contesting for water resources. Someone developed a boardgame that allowed people to empathise with the other perspective through the process of playing. Also co-producing a book.

Opportunity: how far can you take the idea of playing games especially in a technological era of consoles and virtual reality?

  • Created computer that attempt to make players empathise cultural others and understand their cultural perspective could be a very powerful anti-manipulation strategy

Opportunity: How can OICD use artistic interventions into conflict areas?

  • OICD’s research could be used to create PSAs, films, even board/computer games that address problems/tensions/grievances within society.

Food represents another means through which to foster harmony, empathy and understanding between segregated cultural and ethnic groups.

  • Bryfield example: North Western English town with an intense divide between the white working class populations and descendants of Pakistani immigrants. Started food sharing programmes where the women from each community would share their recipes.
  • Armenia-Turkey example: people divided by a border but share almost identical meant food which became a means through which they would overcome tension and division

Insight: All these interventions (food, art…) are about breaking with the established societal consensus of each context that two identities have to operate in opposition, as a duality

  • Art and food represent potent means of finding common ground

Opportunity: what other methods can be used to address tension/division?

  • community organisation/events/festivals such as Notting Hill Carnival or street parties
  • Could long running festivals/carnivals/events be studied further a peace-building perspective? Notting Hill was an extraordinarily effective means through which a diasporic population integrated themselves

Question: would OICD compete with weaponized narratives risking potential backlash and adversary? Or would OICD attempt to remove weaponization from the society all together?

  • Attempt to undermine weaponization as a significant cultural force by working with the ‘weaponizers’
  • EG- Conciliation resources working with Bougainville warlords and trying to get them to be peacetime leaders
  • Proactive vs Reactive

Question: how long would it take to internalise a new narrative? What is the time process for a cultural group to change their identity formation?

  • Requires interventionists to be patient and remain sceptical of quick fixes

Opportunity: divisive, manipulation narratives can produce changes in people’s identities within an incredibly short time frame. But this also means the changes that are produced can dissipate or be countered very quickly

  • EG- Olympics, proud moment for Britishness, but the legacy has been weak and the positivity that the 2 weeks fostered has clearly not been maintained
  • This is also true for weaponized narratives though; it works both ways
  • Must remain hopeful that weaponized narratives can be countered quickly but also wary that identity-based peace building interventions can fade away just as fast

Opportunity: Could OICD lead more investigation into the process of European based diasporic populations returning to their countries of origin and taking on positions of political power.

  • What does their presence change? Do they bring new values? Are these values well received?
  • Can OICD track this process and see how they are perceived by the citizens of their country?
  • Is it worth consulting with these people for advice on how to deal with ethnic/cultural tension between local and diasporic populations in Europe?

Insight: drawing attention to the problem of instantaneous, foundational political moments/mass movements.

  • These events channel people into a dualistic political choice that forces them to assert their identity in a way that suppresses nuance and ambiguity
  • EG- Obama election, Brexit, Trump; all these figureheads/moments are cementing identity narratives that are bubbling beneath the surface
  • These narratives always exist but need to be standardised, formalised so they can be maintained and are resilient
  • Theoretical link: Gramsci’s work on Cultural discourse

Necessity of deeper level analysis, example: intergroup vs intragroup conflict in Milton Keynes between a gypsy traveller community and local working-class populations

  • The people calling for their eviction were working class families who had settled in Milton Keynes much more recently in the post war era compared to many wealthier locals.
  • Their hatred of Gypsies was a proxy war, projecting their insecurity within Milton Keynes onto an ‘other’

Need to be very deliberate in framing ‘what is the problem that we are trying to solve’; need focus

The OICD is proud that the Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations, Aga Khan University, were our partners and co-hosts in a workshop held in King’s Cross, London on October 8th and 9th 2018. The theme of the workshop was:

Can Identities Positively Transform Societies?
Theoretical and Methodological Challenges and Solutions

Workshop Concept Summary

Peace and conflict scholars of identity have been generally optimistic that human identities offer great potential to transform conflict and promote cohesion in society. Part of the optimism comes from observations that the opposite is true–that identities are often used to divide and promote conflict in the world. The logic is that if the mechanisms through which divisions are made are understood and modelled, then they can be utilized to prevent and reverse divisive manipulation.

Despite the sound theoretical basis of the optimism, researchers and practitioners have found it difficult to translate the scholarly observations into tools and models that can be applied to real world practice. The workshop investigates why this might be the case, delving into the theoretical and methodological challenges that the development of such tools and models present.

The workshop brings together scholars and practitioners who all in someway work towards identifying and overcoming the challenges of theory and method. Theoretical questions include: what are the critical dynamics of identity and how can they be modelled to help to positively engage identities? Methodological questions include: how can we research and identify ways in which people shift their representations between multiple cultural concepts and narratives?

DAY ONE (10am-5pm)

A day of presentations from academics, practitioners and other experts in the field of Identity and Conflict. Speakers and discussants included: Special Guest Pierre Sane (formally Secretary General of Amnesty International), Ruth Mandel (UCL), Davin Bremner (, Ciaran O’Toole (Conciliation Resources), Steve Lyon (Aga Khan University’s Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilizations and OICD), Emilia Groupp (Stanford University and OICD), Bruce White (OICD and UCL).

10am Coffee, Opening Remarks and Introduction (Steve Lyon, Bruce White)

10.30am “Competition, Cooperation and Conflict Through Identity in Pakistan” Steve Lyon (ISMC, Aga Khan University and OICD)
11.30am “Utilizing Ethnographic Data and Analysis to Counter Conflict and Promote Cohesion: Introducing the “Engagement Methodology for Identities in Conflict” (EMIC)” Bruce White (OICD-UCL) & Emilia Groupp (Stanford-OICD)

12.30pm LUNCH

1.30pm “Human Needs Theory and Conflict Resolution in Practice”  Davin Bremner (
2.30pm Coffee
3pm “Identity, Conflict and Peacebuilding in Melanesia” Ciaran O’Toole (Conciliation Resources)
4pm Open Discussion
5pm End of Day One