“You cannot ask us to talk about peace”

Posted by on Jun 30, 2014 in News | No Comments

“You cannot ask us to talk about peace. We do not know what peace looks like. We do not know what peace feels like”: The challenges of conducting research with a community under siege.

 By Leila Emdon

This guest entry by Leila Emdon from the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation addresses her personal experience in conducting research with men and women who currently face ongoing gang violence in their community in South Africa. In doing so it asks the question: Can one truly conduct ethical and objective research when those being ‘researched’ are experiencing trauma?

Recently, my colleagues and I conducted two focus groups. One with men and another with women from a community on the Cape Flats in the Western Cape. Our core questions were ‘when do you know there is peace in your neighbourhood? and when do you feel safe’? In this discussion we asked the participants to tell us about their personal perceptions of and experiences with peace, conflict, crime and safety. The findings that emerged from these discussions will later be used to inform the questions of a community wide survey that will gather data on peoples’ every day peace indicators.

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In the aftermath of these focus groups I was left shocked and overwhelmed at the war-like conditions these men and women have to endure in their everyday lives and found myself questioning how research can be adequately conducted with individuals who are deeply wounded, deeply traumatised and immersed in collective and individual grief. It is one thing to ask someone to reflect on past trauma’s and conflict (which itself is a traumatic experience as one has to relive old painful memories) but it is quite another when one is asked to reflect on a traumatic event that is so recent, they may still be reeling in its aftermath. The research process has made me seriously question whether ethically one should be engaging with people who so clearly need counselling, or whether asking people to verbalise their pain is a way to allow them a safe space to get it out, put words to their pain and feel validated. What is the moral obligation of the researcher who is probing into people’s lives when pain is still so raw? Is the process of research in itself therapeutic? Are the positive effects of research enough to justify the possible harmful side effects of research? Or is it ethically wrong to engage with people who need counselling and trauma healing? How is data impacted by the presence of one’s trauma? And how does a researcher navigate this terrain?

What struck me about these focus groups was the differing atmosphere that was apparent in the men and women’s groups. The women were silent, angry and grief stricken, it was difficult at first to gain their trust and assure them that they are safe, that we are neutral. Without sounding too esoteric, one could say that hanging in the air was a heavy cloud of pain. Tears had only recently been shed and some had only recently lost loved ones in the gang wars. After the project was explained one woman decided to opt out of the discussion. After the initial question regarding peace was asked there was an awkward silence in the room. Eventually one woman stated “You cannot ask us to talk about peace. We do not know what peace looks like. We do not know what peace feels like.” After a while the participants warmed up and we engaged in a lively discussion, however, there was still a feeling in the room that it was difficult to differentiate between peace and war times and there was a clear desperate grief in their testimonies.

For the women in the room, there was a sense that they shoulder the grief and burden of gang violence on behalf of their husbands, brothers, parents, extended family and children. This burden is a tremendous weight and some of the women could not articulate the feelings they have regarding this pressure. One young woman described how her twenty one year old brother had only been out of prison for three months when he was murdered by gang members just three months ago. While she is still dealing with her own grief, her pain extends to her concern for her eighteen year old brother who, just after the murder of his older brother, put on his bloody clothes and ran around the neighbourhood with a gun in an angry outburst. Today she worries for his mental wellbeing and his spiral into depression. She also worries about her mother who is not coping with her son’s death, and her own young son who she puts in after school youth programmes so he does not face the dangers of gang intimidation and recruitment.

While telling her story she looked at me with a deep and desperate grief. In that moment I was unable to see myself as an objective researcher but was just another young woman imagining how I would feel if I lost my brother and how I would cope with the breaking apart of my family. At the women’s focus group I became aware that this was not only an exercise of research and hearing stories, but was also a moment where women shared their pain and grief with us, and this would impact our relationship, this would call into question my power relation as a researcher and would ultimately inform our research findings. My initial thoughts after our meeting was ‘these women do not need research. These women need counselling and who am I to ask them to talk about their pain?’.


As soon as we started the men’s focus group the discussion got underway with the facilitator trying his best to give each person a turn to speak. This group had a lot to say and ideas and opinions were flying. Like the women, the men told stories of tremendous hardship but something about the discussion was different. The men were often making jokes and at times laughing at the ridiculousness of some of the situations they face. This is not at all to indicate an insensitivity to their situation but it was as if laughter was one of the only ways to attempt to be objective about their situation. Laughter helped frame their feeling of disbelief and inability to comprehend the logic behind some of their experiences. For example, one man described how because he happens to live near a gang leaders house, he never witnesses crime or gang war in his street. He feels safe in his street because the actual wars happen away from the leaders. Another man who works with young people in schools and programmes described how if he greets young children in the street and they greet back with fondness, he feels immune to gang violence because the leaders respect him for the work he does with their children. The contradictions and lack of logic to the warfare and trauma caused the men to laugh and shake their heads in disbelief rather than fall silent in grief like the women. While the women spoke about the worries they have for their families, men described their ways of protecting their families and the masculine posturing they need to do when walking down the street in an attempt to deter the gangsters from harming them. Those men who were able to walk with purpose and strength, and those who felt they carried a strong sense of faith in God felt they were sometimes wearing an invisible bullet proof vest against the violence. What emerged for me was that a strong identity and sense of what it means to be a man was essential in protecting oneself from both the lure of joining a gang and in pushing back against the constant threat of crime and violence.

What became apparent to me is that both groups had coping mechanisms to wrap their heads, hearts and words around the everyday conflict they confront in the neighbourhood. Both groups had gendered ways of surviving their war-like circumstances and both groups expressed their trauma in gendered ways. One thing in common between both groups was the almost tangible pain they were enduring. And here we were, researchers, in a room with note pads, pens, recorders and research guides asking questions and using painful and loaded words like ‘peace’. At times I felt we were validating their pain, giving them ears to listen and the chance to get their stories out. At other times I felt I had no right to be asking these questions of them when they had not even been given the chance to process it themselves.

In my limited experience as a researcher I relied on my instincts in the moment. Once the questions had been asked and the issues probed as I sat with the women, I felt that more needed to be discussed, that questions that were not on the research guide needed to be asked and that heavy air in the room needed to be cleared. I felt that I wanted to know them better and to share with them that what they going through is completely unfair and unjust and that I wished things were different. What followed were details about brothers, sisters and friends. The young woman who lost her brother shared with us how much he meant to her, how she was so happy to have him back after prison as he did not go to a formal prison but rather some form of rehabilitation centre and that before he died, he was a different man. Slowly the power relation between researcher and participant began to dissolve and we were just women chatting about the things that are important. I felt I could express the empathy I felt the entire discussion, I felt I could express my disbelief. They felt they could share details of their lives and the tension started to dissipate. Afterwards I realised that without empathy, without the chance to be subjective, research can be problematic. We are only human after all.

In reflecting on whether or not it is a good thing to do research with someone who is traumatised I realised that trauma is trauma, and when you ask someone to speak about their pain whether it happened to them or their community that morning, a month or fifty years ago that trauma will never leave them, it will always be in their life narrative and will always have a profound impact on who they are. Whether it’s years after or the day after, that trauma is valid and their interpretation from where they are sitting is equally as valid. At the beginning of the men’s focus group the first question probed what people understand about peace and one man opened the discussion saying “I will go with a quote: ‘Peace is only one guy with a stick being beaten by a guy with a bigger stick’. This quote reflects both men and women’s inability to trust the idea of peace. Peace itself is conflict in disguise. This idea is influenced by the fact that they are experiencing trauma in this moment. The violence has not passed, as one man explained ‘we live with a constant ticking time bomb’. What would the discussion have been like if there was genuine peace and trauma was now a memory? It made me realise that as a researcher one must be aware of how where one is situated in that trauma will influence how it is reflected upon. Whether or not an individual or a community has had counselling, justice and reconciliation will too impact how they view themselves and their situation. And wherever along the timeline of the trauma you find yourself as a, the experience of the participants is valid.

This article has attempted to answer the questions posed at the beginning but I must admit that I do not yet have the answers to the questions I have raised. After this experience one can argue that the process of focus group discussions and qualitative research can help prompt dialogue and healing and active community participation in research can itself empower participants. However it could still be argued that perhaps project design should explicitly factor in healing and counselling so that the immediate effects of violence are addressed.

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