DGSi staff are engaged in world-leading research on peace, security and development. Our original intellectual vision was around three D's: Defence, Diplomacy and Development. Often Defence, Diplomacy and Development act hand-in-hand. But sometimes they can be contradictory, and they each entail ethical and practical challenges. DGSi research – on peacebuilding, security, migration, mediation, human rights and many other topics – is focused on key issues of our time. As well as fieldwork-driven research, our staff are engaged in theoretical and conceptual work that often shapes academic debates. We pride ourselves in our interdisciplinary work. We are convinced that no single academic discipline has all the answers to the complex social problems that are connected with conflict and development challenges. Instead, it is more likely that a combination of insights from various disciplines will allow a more nuanced analysis of the issues connected with conflict and peace.
Catherine Turner – Deputy director of DGSi
I am just about to start a project called ‘Seeking Common Ground: Is there a coherent concept of peace mediation?’ The idea behind the project is that mediation as a field of scholarship and practice has evolved significantly in the past decade. There are now so many more actors involved, and each of these brings their own disciplinary assumptions and ways of working to the table (if you’ll pardon the pun). As part of this project I will conduct a cross disciplinary analysis of the different approaches to mediation with a view to developing a typology of peace mediation activities and the ways they are connected to the goal of sustaining peace. In doing this I also hope to create a theoretical framework that builds on the tools of critical theory to further interdisciplinary understanding of mediation in theory and practice.
I’m an inherently interdisciplinary scholar, and I’m fascinated by the way in which ideas speak to each other or not across disciplinary boundaries. So I’m excited about playing with some of the analogies and techniques from language and communication to explore deeper understandings of peace mediation.
The project is supported by a Leverhulme Fellowship and I am very grateful to have the time to really dive into these questions in some depth. Hopefully there will be a monograph coming to all good bookshops sometime in 2025!
This particular project has come about through a fairly sustained piece of work engaging with policy makers in relation to peace mediation. I have spent the last few years seeking to understand the changing landscape of peace mediation. This has involved working with a whole range of different people, from civil society activists, to government departments and the UN. I learned so much about the different ways in which people approach the question of mediation, which prompted me to think much more about the need to step back and really think about the foundations of the field and how to conceptualize it.
I’m only really starting out on this leg of the journey, but so far I have been having a lot of fun thinking about the language aspect of mediation. There are so many analogies that can be drawn on to think about conflicting understandings not only of how we conceptualise mediation, but also how it operates in practice. For example, the Critical Legal Conference is taking place in Norway this year—one of the stream’s invited submissions conceptualized law through the mythical beasts that control access to it. I’m very interested in the role of law in peace processes, and I had a lot of fun researching myths and fairytales to explore the different ways in which law can be characterized, the different ways in which we ‘see’ or ‘hear’ a story that is being told, and what this tells us about the competing expectations of inclusion in mediation.
In general, no. I am a post-structural theorist and draw primarily on Jacques Derrida’s work to try and reveal structures of violence. In the project on peace mediation I will be working through Derrida’s writings on negotiation and on translation to try and understand how we relate to others. So as a general rule I am more interested in understanding contestation than taking part in it.
That said, I do believe that there needs to be greater attention paid to increasing the representation of women in the peace mediation field. I have explored this primarily through the lens of leadership – advocating re-thinking how we understand leadership to bring in a more nuanced understanding of why diversity matters. But even at that I seek to understand how we might address it rather than taking an activist or strongly normative stance.
Ultimately I hope that by spending some time really thinking about how the peace mediation field has evolved and some of the core recurring tensions that are presenting at the moment, the research will be useful in bringing some clarity for policy makers on the different understandings of mediation, how they shape the engagement of different parties, and how this would improve the policy response.
My disciplinary background is in law. I first became interested in the field of peace and security when I was an undergraduate student, studying what was then a very nascent field of Transitional Justice. But I was always a little uncomfortable about the political dynamics of law in conflict and post-conflict environments. Coming from Northern Ireland, I had really big questions about how the use of human rights law had become so politicised, and how to overcome that. After I completed my degree I had the opportunity to go and work for an organization called Mediation Northern Ireland, based in Belfast. This was in the early post-Good Friday Agreement years and they were developing a model of civic mediation to help communities in conflict to engage in in nonviolent ways. That experience was particularly formative. I saw the way in which attention to relationships could help to make life easier for people who had lived with terrible violence. From then on I saw justice through a relational lens, and I have spent my academic career exploring how these ideas can be reconciled with legal approaches to post-conflict justice. This has led me from an early focus on transitional justice into the field of peace mediation more broadly, which for me has a lot of parallels with transitional justice.
I didn’t have the same journey into academia as ECR’s do these days. I was hired as a research assistant and then a lecturer without a PhD. I later completed my PhD part time, but in many ways my journey was easier. But I remember as a young scholar looking at the policy engagement work that my senior colleagues were doing and wondering would I ever get the opportunity to make a difference in that way—to engage with all these really interesting people. I was in a hurry.
I felt like I had something to prove. I wish I had known then that things worked out ok and that I could put a little less pressure on myself. It is important to take the time to find your academic voice and be confident about what you are contributing—whether that is to academic knowledge or to policy engagement. There is always pressure to be doing more, but building a solid foundation is important, even when it feels lonely.
The work is never done. There is always something you could be doing—another article, another conference, etc. It is difficult to ever really switch off. I also find that there are so many ideas out there that I would love to learn more about and engage with. Yet our professional lives are now structured much more so than in the past. We have targets in terms of both the nature and quality of what we produce that requires a certain degree of discipline and focus and the ability to filter out that which is not immediately useful. I find this difficult. For this reason the Leverhulme Fellowship feels like a real luxury. Without the time pressures of teaching and administration I can really spend time thinking, exploring and playing with ideas in a way that would not be possible otherwise.
Collaboration is a real joy of academic life. In law in particular, we are trained to work alone, and conditioned to believe that sole authored work is of higher value than co-authored work. But part of my work on peace mediation has been on the Women Peace and Security agenda as a way of thinking about women’s inclusion. I have been working with Professor Aisling Swaine of University College Dublin on this project for a couple of years now. It has been the most generative academic experience of my career because we both bring something different to the research, and through the process of collaboration—talking, thinking and writing together—we have definitely generated ideas and ways of thinking about problems that neither of us would have generated alone. For me this type of collaboration is so much more than the sum of its parts. It’s a real example of 2+2=5. There is an added secret ingredient. So for now I am happy with my collaborator!
Stefanie Kappler - Professor in Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding
I am currently working on a number of collaborative research projects. Two are dealing with the connection between memory, cultural heritage and peacebuilding, one is addressing the ways in which art can contribute to peace formation processes, one investigates ways of decolonizing peace education in Africa (DEPA).
Most of the projects have emerged from years of conversations with colleagues that eventually translated into a successful funding proposal and more institutionalized ways of collaborating. What interests me across those projects is essentially the ways in which dominant, often colonial, ideas of peace can be challenged by the inclusion of new ideas, actors and worldviews.
One big thing has been the opportunity to learn from African-based scholars and artists through the DEPA-project. It is really astonishing that their insights and knowledge have been largely ignored in peace scholarship and practice, despite what they have to contribute to our understanding of peace and justice. This large blind-spot is likely not a coincidence and linked to global power inequalities, but it still leaves me to wonder what else peace work is overlooking as a result of its focus on ideas of powerful actors and institutions in the global north.
I have always been explicitly normative in my work – for how can one talk about peace without having certain ideas about justice and social relations? Ideally, I see my role as amplifying and translating voices to new audiences, discussing the complicity of my own networks/communities/governments in war and violence and raising uncomfortable questions. All of this can be researched through tested and consistent research methods, but it is inherently and necessarily normative in its orientation and goals.
It is hard to judge what kind of impact any research project might have further down the line. In the first instance, I am hoping that some of the resources that we managed to mobilise for these projects have benefitted the early-career researchers that were hired, researchers situated in contexts with less funding available as well as the local partners who we have been working with to co-produce the research findings. In the longer run, I am hoping that our research will help open up the debate around the different understandings of peace and create space for so-far marginalised approaches and ideas.
In a nutshell, I think I would summarise them as:
I think I was frustrated with the reluctance of much of the peacebuilding practice (and scholarship) to critically reflect on its own power inequalities, hierarchies and blind-spots. When I started to engage with artists in Bosnia-Herzegovina, around 2009, this was an eye-opener for me in terms of how much they had to say about the deficiencies of the “peace process” and how very few actors in the peacebuilding world took this seriously. The artwork I discovered was so full of comments about what a just order might mean for the country and region and pointed to ways in which the past could be engaged in non-ethnic ways. That, in turn, really triggered my interest in thinking about the connections between art, memory politics and peacebuilding.
For me, it is balancing the competing demands of research, teaching and administration. I spend more time on the last than the former two, although I most enjoy research and teaching. I wish there was more time to interact directly with research partners, interview's and students as this is where the best ideas seem to come from.
Will Plowright - Lecturer in Peace and Conflict Studies in SGIA
In disasters and conflicts around the world, humanitarian aid workers struggle to bring assistance to suffering populations. But at times, governments will actively bock and obstruct those humanitarians, leading to increased death and suffering. Both authoritarian and democratic states have done this. What explains these actions, and why would states who profess a dedication to human rights obstruct assistance to the most vulnerable people in the world? My project seeks to answer this question, looking to how European governments blocked assistance during the so-called “European Migration Crisis” of 2014 to 2022.
The idea came from personal experience when I was working in Libya for a humanitarian organization, trying to bring medical care to refugees and migrants who had been locked in internment centers in spite of having committed no crime. While we tried to bring assistance, we were repeatedly blocked, and were constantly left wondering why.
The most surprising thing to me has been the interviews, which I did with around 150 active humanitarian aid workers. The diversity of ideas and challenges was stunning, but so was the creative means with which humanitarians try to overcome obstructive governments. It’s incredible how a relatively small group of people can challenge the most powerful governments in Europe in order to bring assistance to needy people.
I am unabashedly on the side of the humanitarians in their struggle against obstruction. Although the humanitarian system is very far from perfect, it’s the best system we have for the moment, and it helps bring assistance to millions of vulnerable people. I hope to have a normative angle that helps to expose the contradictions and power imbalances within the humanitarian system, while also studying how governments block humanitarians in order to better understand how to navigate those obstructions.
Beyond the research, I will share the final product with a number of key individuals within humanitarian organizations, in the hopes that it can continue to foster discussion on how obstruction of assistance may be overcome.
The main policy take away is that Western governments regularly obstruct humanitarian assistance, and they will not cease doing so any time soon, so humanitarians need to be ready to engage in a long struggle against Western governments in order to push for the norm of humanitarian access.
My favourite part of the project was the conducting interviews, with humanitarians from all over the world. It was deeply insightful to hear about such a range of experiences, but also to see the common trends of obstruction across the different contexts.
My passion for humanitarian work led me to the field, and I was lucky to work in a variety of areas. However, the reality of the humanitarian sector is that it has many problems, power imbalances, inefficiencies, and more. I started to research humanitarian work theoretically so that I could better understand how to engage in humanitarian work practically.
Research is always a challenge, and sometimes the answers seem elusive and impossible to grasp. Follow your intuition and seek the opinions and guidance of as many peoples as you can, to help you challenge your assumptions and find a way forward.
Sometimes being in the academic ‘ivory tower’ can seem incredibly distant from real world events. We as academics are an incredibly privileged bunch and are very lucky to have a job where we study the things that we are passionate about. We need to remember this and ensure that our research is close to real world events and is able to support people suffering in real ways. We can do that in our research by ensuring it has real world implications, and in our classrooms by ensuring there are diverse voices in the classroom, and by engaging with colleagues who are able to offer a range of experiences and views.
I once worked in a very challenging humanitarian context, with large amounts of violence, and ethical challenges that made humanitarian work very challenging. When I left and returned home, I came across a copy of Humanitarian Ethics (Oxford, 2015), which not only opened my eyes in a research sense, but also helped me think through many of the ethical challenges I had faced. I admired the author’s ability to match research with real-world challenges, so if I could pick any collaborator, it would probably be Hugo Slim.