“Engaging Conflict and Peace through Identity: An Academic-Practitioner Collaborative Workshop”
from the Department of Anthropology, UCL and the OICD
9th– 10th November 2015, London
On the 9th and 10th of November 2015, a two-day conference, “Engaging Conflict and Peace through Identity: An Academic-Practitioner Collaborative Workshop” was hosted by the Department of Anthropology, University College London (UCL) and the Organisation for Identity and Cultural Development (OICD). The conference brought together leading academics, practitioners and representatives from conflict transformation NGOs to analyse the role of identity in the promotion of peace and/or the promotion of conflict.
The first day featured a series of academic and practitioner perspectives on conflict transformation, CVE (Countering Violent Extremism) and the promotion of social cohesion through identity. The second day consisted of an interactive simulation which applied the OICD’s EMIC (Engagement Methodology for Identity in Conflict) to a UK CVE case study, showing the productive capacity to build bridges between practitioners and academics.
The conference was opened by Dr. Ruth Mandel (UCL) who welcomed participants and introduced them to the workshop. Dr. Bruce White (UCL) then proceeded with the first talk of the day, “Engaging Conflict and Building Cohesion through Identity”. The OICD’s two main goals were introduced – the application of interdisciplinary research on identity to real world problems and the creation of a platform for academics and practitioners to discuss and construct real world application of research.
Dr. White discussed identity as a root cause of conflict, constructed in nature and therefore manipulated to divide, radicalise and sectarianise. Dr. White also emphasised that identities are under our control, which also implies that we can counter this manipulation in providing competing discourses that dilute or offer alternative frameworks of meaning to individuals.
Next, Dr. Susan Pattie (University College London) continued with her talk, “When Friends Become Enemies: Identities at the Breaking Point”, discussing how everyday connections can break and reverse in times of crisis. Creation and consolidation of a powerful master narrative act to limit identity formation as selected history is made personal, emotional, embedded and connected to one’s sense of self.
Dr. Pattie discussed the creation of this narrative through the performance of history through poetry and song, made more pervasive due to their importance to everyday life, group recital and the use of symbols which hold meaning for the performers. As the master narrative comes pervasive, connections and comparisons to others are lost which acts to prevent flexible identity formation.
Dr. Sara Silvestri (University of Cambridge and City University London) then discussed the role of religion in conflict and peace-building in her contribution, “Religion within the Context of Conflict or Peace Producing Identity Dynamic”. In a situation of escalating conflict, religious language and concepts are used to cultivate identity. Religious claims are not the source of conflict, but can be used by leaders to obtain legitimacy and cultivate a particular power plan. Dr. Silvestri stated that it is therefore important to be sensitive to the language of religion which forms part of the cultural elaboration of conflict, but there is a need to look at other factors in seemingly religious conflicts. Participants next took a short break for lunch, reflecting on the talks in their vibrant discussions.
After the break, Phil Vernon, Director of Programmes and acting CEO at International Alert, described the organisation’s work, goals to build a capacity to manage conflict and the merits of taking a vision-based approach in this process.
This was followed by a powerful talk by Haras Rafiq, managing director at the Quilliam Foundation, who emphasised that preventing extremism and tackling Islamism will require debate, dialogue and discussion.
Milo Comerford, a researcher at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, discussed the importance of examining the non-military activity of terrorist groups in order to understand how shared discourses can be ultilised as emotional persuasion tools. For example, through examining Jihadi group identity and culture, we can discover destructive narratives to inform an introduction competitive discourses with sophistication.
After this series of engaging talks, Dr. Bruce White and Wayne Jordash closed the first day conference by thanking participants for their engagement and inviting applications for attendance to the second day workshop.
Day two provided an opportunity for academics and practitioners to build on the day one talks by working in smaller groups to analyse and interact with conflicts and identity through the OICD’s EMIC process. After participants greeted one another and discussed day one’s events, the session was opened by Dr. White with an introduction to the OICD’s aims in promoting peace and conflict through identity.
In the first session, participants worked together to identify relevant identity factors from research data. Each group was given an unnamed data set, and asked to interpret its contents. Each dataset described a group of people, and participants worked hard to discover what kind of person their data set represented, forming their first impressions in groups.
Presentations were then given by each group. Group A described a predominantly white-British group who were socio-economically marginalised, adding that the group represented carried a strong anti-Muslim ideology. Group B identified a group with a strong community feeling, who at the same time felt divided and disenfranchised with British society. Group C identified a transitional generation in their dataset, who were predominantly female. Group D described male youth who were angry and confused with their surroundings but felt positive in their references to ISIS.
After groups had shared their initial impressions, groups worked to create a list of recurring ideas in their data set which the people represented either associated themselves with or associated themselves in opposition to. Concepts were then written onto labels and placed on a board under subsets titled “socio-economic”, “gender”, “religious/ cultural”, “national”, and “global societal”. The mess of labels spread across the board was then transformed as participants added and re-organised concepts. By the time the first session ended for lunch, participants were unaware of how the workshop would progress, but seemed eager to discover how their analyses would come together in the second session.
After a refreshing break, groups participated in an analysis and strategy building component of the workshop Participants from the four original groups were re-allocated to three groups, mixing experts from the data-sets to create diverse sets of experts on all dynamics of the given situation. New groups were then asked to compare and contrast the ways in which different concepts were used and accessed by groups. When groups presented ideas, comparisons were made between categories A and D, which shared very narrow and fixed focuses on concepts such as “nation” or “religion and culture”, as well as strong perceptions of right and wrong. Conversely, groups proposed that categories B and C accessed a greater variety of concepts across the board.
Through interpreting and analysing the map on the board, groups were then able to select cultural symbols and narratives to develop strategies for countering extremism. The map enabled participants to recognise which concepts more radical groups would have to lose to become more like the groups which had more flexible identities (amplification), and the ways in which they could make positive connections with other groups (re-rooting). For example, the nationalist group A had felt underrepresented, and group D had perceived an oppression of Islam in British society. The two groups could be linked through the realisation of a common struggle, as was present in group B’s (more flexible) identity.
In the final stage of the workshop, groups designed interventions based on the strategies they had previously developed, discussing the extent to which they would be able to measure and evaluate the effectiveness of their proposals. Proposals such as religious school swaps, alternative narratives to portray new British values, introducing more Muslim role models in popular British culture through YouTube clips to target youth and the establishment of community dialogue programs to provide a voice for local people.
The workshop was closed by Bruce White and Wayne Jordash, who gave reflections on the benefits of bridging academic understanding to practical application in the creation of social cohesion.
It has been a productive two days in which individuals from many fields have shared their unique expertise through day one’s series of talks, and in smaller groups during the EMIC process simulative workshop on day two, discussing and building sophisticated platforms for conflict intervention. We hope this two-day conference has provided an inspiring and valuable experience which has demonstrated avenues for not only countering extremism in the UK, but also the potential for building social cohesion on a global basis.