Finding community amid conflict

Q & A with Summer Scholar Meg Gaertner ’12:

How are you approaching the topic?

I’m studying the identity politics of international conflicts and the role that grassroots, bottom-up peace-building—like community-building, reconciliation efforts, and especially sustained dialogues—have in building sustainable peace and preventing future identity conflicts. I compare such techniques with dominant international peace-building strategies—like pacification, militarization, negotiation/mediation—and evaluate which more effectively address the identity politics of conflicts. Finally, I apply this work to the Northern Ireland conflict as a case study.

Fareeda Griffith, Assistant Professor of Sociology/Anthropology, on her advisee:

In two of my courses, Meg displayed real diligence and critical perspective from a sociocultural perspective. She always works hard on assignments and projects, as well as offers thought provoking comments in class discussions. In addition, my research interests include examining racial and ethnic relations from a global perspective. Meg’s project offers a complicated discussion of ethnic relations in Northern Ireland and links the role of post conflict resolution with Sustained Dialogue.

Research Title: “Sustainable Peace: the Necessity of Grassroot Peace Building and the Resolution of Identity Conflict”

What’s the story behind the idea?

I recently returned from a semester abroad in Northern Ireland. The program focused on the conflict itself, the peace process, and current grassroots peace-building efforts. It also involved an internship at an organization working for sustainable peace—I interned at the Belfast City Council. My interest in dialogue and other community-building initiatives stems from my involvement in Sustained Dialogue and Denison Religious Understanding on campus, both working to build community and increase participants’ openness through dialogue.

I wrote the proposal for this project before going to Northern Ireland, but I figured I would want to work on issues related to the program. This was definitely a good judgment. I really became attached to Northern Ireland while there, and it frustrated me to see how “stuck” the region is—the conflicting parties caught in a “peaceful” (though uneasy) coexistence. Many citizens seemed either apathetic or content to experience an “acceptable level of violence” (occasional rioting, petrol bombs thrown, property damage, injuries, and deaths). Others were unwilling to risk the relatively stable status quo in order to achieve sustainable peace. I wanted to research what sustainable peace would entail, and ultimately to be able to make informed suggestions as to how Northern Ireland can move forward.

What’s the most interesting or unexpected thing you learned?

I don’t know if anyone else will find this interesting, but I read some work on community-building that really challenges common understandings of what a community is or entails. Often people in our intensely individualistic society consider community (or at least words sounding like community, like “communism,” gasp!) to be inherently destructive of individual identity. But this author, Scott Peck, proposes that it is only in true community that we can fully and genuinely be ourselves, that rugged individualism essentially prevents us from being completely open with others and from demonstrating our full range of emotions (the “weak” ones along with the acceptable ones) and perspectives (the “wrong” ones along with the good). Only in community is difference and individualism truly cherished and celebrated. I found this fascinating.

Meg Gaertner is a senior sociology/anthropology and international studies double major from Dallas. Her research was funded by the Laura C. Harris Endowed Fund.

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12:07 PM September 1, 2011

Elizabeth Jones wrote:

Hello, I am a colleague of Professor John Nass at California University of Pennsylvania. For 35 years I have been traveling and studying the conflict in the North of Ireland. My last visit in the summer of 2010, I sensed that the Continuity IRA was increasingly gaining ground among those who once supported the peace process. Do you have any thoughts on why this may be the case. Professor Elizabeth A. Jones


12:49 PM September 10, 2011

Meg gaertner wrote:

Hello, Professor Jones!
While I did notice a number of signs of the presence andcommunity support of the Continuity IRA (namely through graffiti), I did not realize that this had been increasing over time (I was only there for a few months). I have a few thoughts on why this may be the case. When I visited, I was struck by how much Northern Ireland seems to be in a crucial transition stage, even though it’s already been 13 years since the signing of the peace treaty. While the majority of society seems to be following a strategy of avoidance of all contentious issues and politeness when interacting with the “other side,” this general apathy and acceptance of low levels of violence and high levels of community division could easily dissatisfy those who want change. As far as I can tell, not much has changed in the past 13 years; the important issues of identity and nationality have not been addressed, and so it does not surprise me that there may be increasing discontent among those who expected far greater advances.

From what I’ve read, the Good Friday Agreement was seen as a relative victory for the republicans. Unionists in general felt like the agreement reduced the “Britishness” of Northern Ireland, while Catholic communities were generally more positive about the agreement. Now, however, many in the Catholic community might think that nothing has changed since then and no more gains have been made through the work of Sinn Fein and the political republican movement. So perhaps they would be willing to resurrect the paramilitary movement if that is seen as the only way to change the current situation.
I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter!
Meg Gaertner


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